Chefs in France Bring Extra Virgin Olive Oil to Christmas Dinners

The quality of local oils and their health benefits have earned a place at the heart of French Christmas traditions.

By Paolo DeAndreis
Dec. 13, 2022 17:54 UTC

France is one of the European coun­tries where olive oil con­sump­tion has grown the most in the last 30 years, from 28,000 tons in 1990 to 125,000 in 2021.

Consumers’ ris­ing aware­ness of its healthy prop­er­ties, cou­pled with the cre­ative intu­ition of many French chefs, have brought extra vir­gin olive oil into the kitchens of mil­lions of French fam­i­lies and many restau­rants.

Therefore, it should not come as a sur­prise that extra vir­gin olive oils are increas­ingly found among the dis­tin­guished guests of French Christmas cel­e­bra­tions.

See Also:The Flavors of Extra Virgin Olive Oil

The South of France is where EVOO is cher­ished the most, which is an obvi­ous con­se­quence of the excel­lent olive oils pro­duced in the region,” Emmanuelle Dechelette, an author, taster and founder of Olio Nuovo Days, told Olive Oil Times.

The pres­ence of the olive tree in France dates back thou­sands of years. In ancient times, the pro­longed Greek and Roman pres­ence in the region trig­gered olive farm­ing, which in mod­ern times has assumed a sig­nif­i­cant eco­nomic role in wide areas of the South of France, such as Provence and Occitanie. Today, local con­sump­tion largely exceeds pro­duc­tion vol­umes.

Emmanuelle Dechelette

Since the 1980s, a rel­e­vant rea­son for olive oil’s spik­ing pop­u­lar­ity among con­sumers stays in the wide­spread inter­est for the Mediterranean diet and its healthy out­comes,” noted Dechelette.

On top of that, very sig­nif­i­cant names in French cui­sine have adopted extra vir­gin olive oil as a main ingre­di­ent in their recipes in recent decades, bring­ing fur­ther inno­va­tion to one of the most sig­nif­i­cant cui­sine tra­di­tions in the world.

One exam­ple is Alain Passard, a two-star Michelin holder renowned for his mas­tery of roasted meat. In 2001, he announced that his restau­rant would turn veg­e­tar­ian, a choice that also implied a shift in the fats being used.

One year later, this choice led to Passard earn­ing a new Michelin star and help­ing to increase extra vir­gin olive oil’s appeal among French cui­sine enthu­si­asts.

And then, just a few years ago, some­thing remark­able hap­pened in Lyon, a turn­ing point for EVOO pop­u­lar­ity in France,” Dechelette added.

Lyon, in cen­tral France, is con­sid­ered the country’s gas­tro­nomic cap­i­tal. It is the home of the Sirha fair, one of the largest European events ded­i­cated to pro­fes­sional cui­sine, restau­rants and cui­sine inno­va­tion. Sirha holds a well-known cui­sine com­pe­ti­tion every two years, named for its founder, Paul Bocuse, one of the most impor­tant fig­ures in French cui­sine his­tory.

At the 2017 Bocuse d’Or con­test, the com­pet­ing teams, which had qual­i­fied from all over the world, were asked to pre­pare a vegan dish. This was a first for the com­pe­ti­tion.

“[The vegan dish] came as a com­plete sur­prise for every­one, even more con­sid­er­ing that Paul Bocuse mostly loved but­ter and cream. That was the year olive oil con­quered the spot­light,” Dechelette noted.

Today in restau­rants it is becom­ing more fre­quent to be offered bread and olive oil where once it would have been bread and but­ter,” she added.

As the Christmas sea­son approaches, olive grow­ers and olive enthu­si­asts in sev­eral loca­tions in the South of France cel­e­brate the olive har­vest. They hold fairs where guests often wear tra­di­tional cos­tumes while they cel­e­brate and taste the new olive oil.

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Olive festival in the Languedoc region of France

While French tra­di­tion does not dis­dain out­door and indoor Christmas dec­o­ra­tions and related leisure activ­i­ties, food prepa­ra­tion and the social and fam­ily gath­er­ings at the din­ner table are, with­out a doubt, the true dri­ver of those spe­cial days.

Mostly home­made, the Christmas Eve din­ner is the main attrac­tion for French fam­i­lies. It is tra­di­tion­ally planned well in advance and expected to last hours.

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It will usu­ally start with an apéri­tif (pre-meal cock­tail). Champagne and Champagne-derived drinks are a fre­quent choice.

Food prepa­ra­tions might take days as they tend to be way more com­plex and rich than at any other time of the year. The guests will expect wine, pos­si­bly tai­lored to the spe­cific dishes being served.

The main course usu­ally includes fish dishes, oys­ters and salmon, with foie gras and escar­got usu­ally served as well.

The many vari­ants of sal­ads are often enhanced by vinai­grette, a hall­mark of French cui­sine that cel­e­brates extra vir­gin olive oil as one of its key ingre­di­ents.

Highly pop­u­lar is the aioli, a cold sauce con­sist­ing of an emul­sion of gar­lic and olive oil. Similar prepa­ra­tions can also be found in the cuisines of the north­west Mediterranean, from Andalusia to Calabria,” Dechelette high­lighted.

Meat-lov­ing fam­i­lies will serve roast chicken or turkey with chest­nut stuff­ing, or they may serve goose, which is often accom­pa­nied by roasted pota­toes and cooked apples.

Traditionally the meal ends with desserts such as fruit cakes and some­times vin brulé, a renowned spicy, sug­ary hot wine drink.

In north­ern France, the Christmas Eve din­ner may end with the bûche de Noël, a wood log-shaped dessert that began its long­time res­i­dence on French din­ner tables at the end of the 19th cen­tury.

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bûche de Noël

In Provence, though, a dif­fer­ent tra­di­tion has grown, with extra vir­gin olive oil emerg­ing as the pro­tag­o­nist of the Christmas Eve desserts.

That is due to a well estab­lished tra­di­tion of desserts, which is inspired [by] Jesus Christ and his 12 dis­ci­ples, the apos­tles,” Dechelette explained.

Thirteen desserts are all served at once at the din­ner table. As this tra­di­tion is inspired by Christ’s last sup­per, the desserts are meant to be shared among guests. That is why all guests are asked to taste at least a bite of each dessert.

In fam­i­lies where reli­gious tra­di­tion thrives the most, the 13 desserts could be shown cov­ered by white table­cloths and three can­dles, rep­re­sent­ing the Holy Trinity. They will con­sume these desserts on Christmas Eve and over the fol­low­ing three days.

Usually intro­duced as the first to be shared, one of the apos­tle-inspired desserts is the pompe a huile (“oil pump”), whose name comes from its round shape, which aims to resem­ble an ancient olive press. It is a sweet­ened bread whose only fat is olive oil.

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Pompe a huile (Photo: Made in Marseille)

Tradition dic­tates choos­ing freshly milled olive oil and fresh orange blos­som for a suc­cess­ful pompe a huile prepa­ra­tion. Many com­pare pompe a huile to the fougasse, a baked bread, but it is more dry,” noted Dechelette.

In Provence, pompe a huile is tra­di­tion­ally believed to be the present brought to the new­born Christ by Pistachio, a char­ac­ter in the long-stand­ing tra­di­tion of the Provençal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Nativity.

Fresh grapes, white and dark nougat, wal­nuts, almonds, hazel­nuts, rowan berries, dried figs, and raisins are the main ingre­di­ents of the remain­ing 12 desserts.


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