For the past dozen years or so my wife and I have run a couple of restaurants, firstly in Spain and more recently in France. We are both of British origin so have had to adapt to a different culture when it comes to celebrating Christmas. Christmas in the restaurant, both in Spain and in France has been quite different to what we had been used to.
Christmas in the Restaurant
In England Christmas starts pretty much as soon as the kids have gone back to school after the summer break in September. The shops start, slowly at first, to introduce seasonal stock, office workers start talking about the “office party” and by the second week in October every shopping mall round the country is piping that awful grating noise we call Christmas music. In the restaurant, bar and hotel business this is a time to cash-in! Deck the halls and book the parties!
Christmas is the time when kitchens are running flat out, restaurant staff are constantly re-laying but somehow everyone remains upbeat. Late nights, early mornings and a good dose of stress seems to bring out the best in caterers.
Our first year in Spain the majority of our clientele were British expats, holiday makers and second home owners, so it was no surprise to find we had demand for the restaurant for Christmas. We wrote a menu for Christmas Day that included the traditional turkey and had the restaurant fully booked by the end of October. Absolutely no different to what we were used to! Oh how wrong we can be.
The Spanish celebrate on Christmas Eve, usually with family and have a large meal with plenty of seafood and, quite often, lamb as the main dish. So when I went to my butcher to order a 12kg turkey he fell about laughing and asked if three small ones would be ok. As we became more established in Spain we started offering the traditional Christmas Eve dinner for our Spanish clients and the turkey meal to our British customers the following day. And every year my butcher smiled and managed somehow to find me a 12kg turkey.
Unlike in the UK where all the gifts are opened on December 25th, the Spanish exchange gifts on Twelfth Night, January 6th or, as they call it, Los Reyes (The Kings) which celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men. As every caterer knows the festive period is an opportunity to ring the register before the long winter months of January and February and it normally finishes with New Year’s Eve but we have just discovered another occasion and a reason to write another special menu.
By the time we left Spain we no longer had the 12 days of Christmas but the 12 menus of Christmas – and chef was often heard muttering “what day is it?” or “who wrote this (expletive removed) menu?” Mmmm….”you did chef!”
France, like Spain, goes big on Christmas Eve. Called the “Reveillon” the meal on Christmas Eve is a family affair and can last hours! Oysters are a favourite to get things going, normally with champagne but it can also be the time when everything comes to a bloody end. The emergency departments in French hospitals are often busy with gentlemen who have over enthusiastically tried “shucking” their oysters. The meal will continue with more seafood and often a capon for the main course. Many of the supermarkets run wine fayres during November and December which prove hugely popular with people carefully selecting their wine for the big occasion.
Something we have learned here in France is that many of the bars and restaurants close for the Christmas holidays, which is an alien concept to us, so we have continued to open throughout right into the New Year. But there really isn’t any demand for Christmas Day. It means I can have a couple of glasses of lemonade after service on the 24th before falling into bed and not worrying about finding a large catering turkey.
This year the end of year holiday season is going to be very different for many people and their favourite restaurant. In France we are not allowed to open until at least the 20th January 2021 following the latest restrictions placed on the hospitality industry in October.