Friday, December 7, 2012

Le marché de Noël

The most famous Christmas Market in France is the one in Strasbourg, which has been going on since 1570 and is probably a lot of fun and completely jammed with tourists. The Christmas Market in Tours is a pale reflection with a fraction of the booths, but still a good crowd. There's a big Ferris wheel on the waterfront at Pont Wilson, but most of the action is in the center of town along Boulevard Heurteloup, on the tree-lined promenade in the middle, in front of the train station. There are booths selling jewelry and scarves and leather wallets and toys, things you'd find at any Christmas market, but also foie gras, in case you've got $200 burning a hole in your pocket. A tradition at markets in the winter in France is vin chaud, also called hypocras, or hot spiced wine. It goes well with roasted chestnuts, the other winter specialty. That's what I was looking for the other day when I stopped by to check out the market.

Unfortunately I had just missed the visit of Père Noël, but was there for the heavy-metal caroling of the group Eidon. They'll have other musical acts through the end of the month on that stage, including traditional French chansons, jazz and swing, and a special performance of classical selections by the local fire brigade. Tomorrow at 2:00pm there is a "parade of Mister Feather and five people who will present to us their machine that creates toys according to the dreams of the children captured along the way." I am assuming that it is the dreams that are captured and not the children, but according to the French governmental website, Father Christmas has a darker side, and "travels with his companion called Père Fouettard, his negative counterpart, who spanks naughty children" so it's hard to tell. I think I'll stay clear of the town center around midafternoon, just in case.

The booths near the stage were mostly selling food: deep-fried sugared churros, called "chichis" here, and drizzled with chocolate; barbe de papa, or "grandpa's beard" (cotton candy - not sure which of the two names is less appetizing, frankly); crêpes and gaufres (waffles); and what used to be called têtes de nègre, chocolate-covered marshmallows now more politically-correctly named simply têtes de chocolat.

One booth was selling fresh oysters, and I stopped to ask this very French-looking man, who was enjoying a very French food experience, if I could take a picture of him. People standing around eating raw oysters and drinking wine wasn't something you saw at the Christmas markets in the United States, I explained, and I wanted to show my friends and family the sights of Tours. He was very nice about it, and after I snapped the photo (do they snap any more, now that cameras are digital?) he asked me if I'd ever eaten raw oysters. "Once, a long time ago, but not French oysters," I said. "Well, you've got to try one then," he replied, loosening the meat of one from its shell. "Here, taste!" So I slurped it down, a briny crunchy tender mouthful, and found I enjoyed it much more than the ones I'd eaten in Boston with Dad a long time ago, probably because this was a smallish oyster and not the big blobs of phlegm I remember from that cold Massachusetts day which required copious amounts of horseradish and ketchup and tartar sauce and whatever other condiment I could find on the table to choke down. I will be eating oysters for Christmas this year.

But as I said, I was there at the market for hot roasted chestnuts, so I went back over to the main row of booths and slowly jostled my way through the crowd to the vendor I had spotted the day before, the one with the big iron pans and the wicker baskets full of nuts piled on the ground. Some of the cotton-candy and fried-dough places were selling chestnuts as well, but this looked more authentic. Rustic. Charred around the edges and handed over, at 3 euros for 100g (200g for 5 euros), by black-dusted fingers in a warm paper bag.

The spiced-wine vendor was at the other end of the row, selling traditional - and when I'm talking traditional here, it means right back to the Middle Ages - hypocras "La Licorne" in very non-traditional styrofoam cups. I was hoping for a leather mug, at least, if not a golden goblet. I asked what spices were in the wine, and the vendor said they used ginger, cinnamon, rosebuds, star anise, cloves, cardamom, "et quatre épices secrètes". They also use sugar; the wine was very sweet. I took my petrochemical goblet over to a park bench and sat sipping my wine and eating roasted chestnuts, and watching le tout Tours walk by.

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