No. 75: Traditions – la Bûche de Noël
I love the family traditions and special foods surrounding Christmas in France, and this week I had the opportunity to learn a few family secrets. I headed to the kitchen of my friend Marie-Françoise to learn how to make la Bûche de Noël, well actually three different Bûche de Noël…each cake a guarded recipe from three special women, from three different generations.
La Bûche de Noël is the traditional French Christmas cake, shaped like a log, made to symbolize the Yule log. The custom of burning a Yule log at the end of the year dates back to at least medieval times, when villages would gather to celebrate the Winter Solstice. After the shortest day of the year, the log would be lit to acknowledge the coming daylight and to welcome the New Year.
In the early days the Yule log was a carefully selected tree (yes, tree, and traditionally a fruit tree). Once chosen and cut, the bulkiest end was placed into the hearth while the rest of the tree filled the room. The tree was lit using the remains of the Yule log from the year before and burned from Christmas Eve, through the Twelve Days, and was extinguished on the Twelfth night. Whatever was left was stored carefully in the house to bring good luck and protect the family from lightning, of course.
Interestingly, according to Marie-Françoise, the tradition of burning the Yule log in Paris, came to an abrupt halt when Napoleon and his city planning pal, Haussmann decided to gentrify the city by tearing down the disorder and getting rid of the riffraff. The familiar Haussmann apartments, many of which did not have chimneys, replaced them.
Lacking the fireplaces to burn the logs, the culinary-inclined Parisians headed to the kitchen (or perhaps the corner bakery) to create (or pick up) an edible log and continue the tradition in a slightly different way.
As for yesterday, it was great fun learning to make three different varieties of Bûche de Noël, all with sweet and meaningful family memories attached.