New Year's eve is like every other night; there is no pause in the march of the universe, no breathless moment of silence among created things that the passage of another twelve months may be noted; and yet no man has quite the same thoughts this evening that come with the coming of darkness on other nights.
- Hamilton Wright Mabie
A quiet night in, just the two of us. The coffee table is spread with a festive cloth, candles lit and wine glasses placed next to plates and the best cutlery. Corks are popped and glasses filled, a time to toast our new year. JP has spent the afternoon making a traditional potée, slow-cooked potatoes, carrots, cabbage and sausages until tender and savory, leaving behind a wonderful, flavorful, warming broth to sip before the meal is served. A great Muscadet from La Domaine le Fay d'Homme has been chilled and we snuggle up together for a cozy, quiet celebration. The following day, the first day of the new year, may be gray and dreary, the drizzle of rain tapping delicately against the window panes, but the traditional New Year’s Day boudin blanc (white sausage) with apples which have been cooked and caramelized until tender is served for lunch and has added a certain brightness, something festive to the day.
Since the Edict of Roussillon was written and signed in 1564 when Charles IX officially selected and set January 1st as New Year’s Day, the French have been celebrating this day with family and close friends. La fête du réveillon de la Saint-Sylvestre, New Year’s Eve and the night of Saint Sylvester, was a joyous festive celebration, bringing together, merging many traditions from many cultures.
Mistletoe has been hung since the time of the druids when it was said to bring good luck and kissing under the mistletoe – on New Year’s Eve, not at Christmas – promised sentimental happiness. I saw my first mistletoe at the market, at the flower stalls, gorgeous branches ballooned out like debutants’ gowns as they hung head down, tied to metal bars with string, lovely faded white beads clinging between the green, not at Christmas but just before the New Year. “Mistletoe?” I asked. “Yes. In France we hang the mistletoe on New Year’s Eve, not at Christmas” JP explained. (How is it in 26 years of living here I never knew this?). “Will you kiss me?” I asked, as I leaned in towards the branches and puckered. “It isn’t New Year’s Eve yet,” he responded as he turned his back and walked away.
It has long been a time to give small gifts, sweets or coins to children, a practice that over the years has extended to the concierge, the postman, the firemen, echoing the centuries- old practice of offering good luck charms and then food, clothing or money in Roman times. I wonder why we have not yet received our visit from the local firemen, offering their choice of calendars with the images of chalets in the snow and kittens posing next to vases of daisies for “purchase”?
Of course, the most widespread traditions for seeing in the New Year have to do with food! New Year’s Eve is celebrated with the Feast of Saint Sylvestre, organized in abundance and joy! Oysters, smoked salmon on blinis and wedges of foie gras sweetened with a dab of onion confit or jam, pear chutney or another sweet and sour accompaniment are all well known New Year’s specialties enjoyed by the French, celebratory each one. From there, some eat turkey with chestnuts, others boudin blanc, white sausage with caramelized apples, others choose something completely different as we did, choosing pure comfort food in the form of a potée.
A little bit of Christmas cheer in Nantes.
And the joy then traditionally overflows on a wave of warmth and alluring scents from the feasts within out into the streets where folks will spread good cheer, joy and wishes for a Happy New Year to the sound of car horns and under the lights of fireworks. And be woken up in the wee hours of the morning by the snap of the front door as son tiptoes home and the drunken wailing and singing of joyous revelers in the streets below.
The object of a new year is not that we should have a new year.
It is that we should have a new soul.
- G. K. Chesterton
In 26 years of being together, JP and I have gone to one single New Year’s Eve party. It was the first year that we were a couple, the December before we married. We traveled into the city to attend the party thrown by an acquaintance, a friend of a friend. We arrived and pushed our way through the crowd, a jumble of people gathered together to chatter excitedly about nothing, laugh loudly, show off and drop names, or so it seemed to the two of us. The artsy fartsy crowd. We sipped Champagne as we were jostled this way and that, the music deafening, the mob rowdy, and all we wanted to be was alone. And so after a short stay, a few hellos, and well before midnight, we slipped quietly out and sped home, to see in the New Year in each other’s arms.
Since that December 31st all of those many years ago, spending the evening alone, just the two – or the four of us, as the case may be - has been a tradition, our New Year’s Eve tradition, allowing us to celebrate just as we like it: quietly, peacefully and in each other’s arms. Early that morning, we stroll over to the market (trying to beat the crowds) and, skirting in and out among those lined up at the fruit stalls or pressed against the chill case of capons and duck or foie gras, we purchase paper-thin slices of smoked salmon, wedges of cheese, tome, comté and camembert, hors d’oeuvres of stuffed olives, tiny marinated artichokes, goat cheese wrapped in papery, smoky strips of speck and a platterful of oysters straight from the Brittany coast, picking up a dense, chewy loaf of brown bread on the way home. Son will arrive later with a press of foie gras and a jar of onion confit, sweet and savory, and we dress our table in finery, turn on a movie and ring in the New Year.
A little Christmas sparkle in Nantes.
And six days later, on Epiphany, we will all cut into a homemade galette des rois that I have filled with traditional frangipane, or maybe apple purée or sweet pastry cream, the puff pastry a deep golden brown, shattering at the first press of the knife, flicking bits all over the tabletop, all over our laps, all over the carpet. One of us will discover the fève, the tiny ceramic charm, in his or her slice, earning the title of King or Queen and the honor of wearing the paper crown on his or her head for the rest of the day.
Following a warming, hearty potée, one must finish the meal and the evening on a cool, light note. I concocted a lusciously light lemon mousse using the ricotta I had in the refrigerator. I kept both the sweetness and the tartness to a minimum, but feel free to increase either with the addition of more sugar and/or more lemon juice. Mound in tiny pre-baked pastry shells or add a ring of homemade ladyfingers or lemon sponge to create a beautiful charlotte. Something this simple to make and light and delicious and the possibilities are endless.
LEMON LIMONCELLO RICOTTA MOUSSE
Serves 4 – 6
1 cup (250 g) ricotta cheese, drained if wet
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of ½ lemon and more to taste
1 Tbs limoncello, optional
3 Tbs powdered/icing sugar and more to taste
¼ - 1/3 cup (100 ml) cold heavy whipped cream
1 egg white (for body)
Beat or whisk the ricotta with the lemon zest, lemon juice, limoncello and 2 tablespoons powdered sugar until smooth and creamy. Beat the cold heavy whipping cream until thick and soft peaks hold. Gently and delicately fold into the ricotta mixture.
Using clean beaters in a clean bowl (I prefer a plastic bowl for beating whites), beat the egg whites until opaque; add one more tablespoon of the powdered/icing sugar and beat until peaks hold. Gently and delicately fold into the ricotta-cream mixture until well blended. Do not overfold as the mousse should be light and creamy. Taste and add more sugar and/or more lemon juice as desired, to taste.
Divide into glasses, verrines, cups or even wine glasses or Champagne flutes and chill until ready to serve, at least an hour.