Grimod de la Reynière begins his “Nutritional Calendar” with the lavish parties given for the New Year as well as for Twelfth Night. In this respect, contemporary Paris — with the cornucopia of oysters, game birds, foies gras, and sweets that abound at this season in its numerous outdoor markets and plentiful shops— would be utterly recognizable to the old world gourmand.
As Grimod put it, such gourmand treats grease the wheels of reconciliation during the seemingly endless round of family reunions and obligatory visits since, “it has been proven that … the clouds of indifference and quarrels are never entirely dispersed except by the sun of good food.”
In addition to being a season for entertaining, it is that of gift-giving. The exchange of étrennes, a word used only for gifts offered for this occasion, remains alive and well. If the calculation of how much money to give one’s gardienne (a building caretaker vaguely equivalent to a doorman) becomes a topic nerve-wracking importance, it is not at all unusual for Parisians to offer edible presents to others such as family members, friends, clients or vendors.
This year, for example, the ever cheerful but hard-working Babeth, who sells artisanal salts, mustards and condiments in the Grenelle and Saxe-Breteuil markets, gave me a jar of delicious quince jelly that she had made herself.
As Grimod points out, one can accept a gift of food without compunction even though to accept its monetary equivalent would be unacceptable. (And, as he also noted, much that is given as currency gets converted into comestibles in any case).
He favored expensive pâtés of foies gras from Strasbourg and Toulouse, which continue to be perennial favorites. Epicurean shops such as Foie Gras Luxe or the Comptoir de la Gastronomie (both on the rue Montmartre, 1st arrondissement) do a swift New Year’s business in gift baskets centered on these items.
Until 1910 Parisian bakers had to comply with an onerous law that required them to give their clients the requisite galette des rois (kings’ cake, with a requisite bean at its center to determine the king of the bean), with which the well-liked holiday of Epiphany, or Twelfth Night has been celebrated since at least the fourteenth century. The abolition of this law, did not, however, diminish the popularity of these pâte feuilletée and frangipane confections, which feature at bakery displays throughout the month. (I will follow Grimod’s lead by passing over this tradition here, although you can read more about it in my recent article for Zester Daily.)
Despite a general apathy to sweets that shall become increasingly apparent, Grimod singled out candy as being a particularly popular gift for the season (so-popular that he says that pockets appear transformed into candy boxes). He seems slightly disparaging of a new fashion for consuming dragées throughout the year because in the past this sweet of medieval origins had been reserved solely for baptisms. Today, they have almost returned to their pre-revolutionary status.
In contemporary Paris, chocolate shops now dominate the sweets-giving trade and the rue des Lombards, which Grimod cited as the center of the candy trade, long ago shifted into a jazz center now dominated by jazz clubs that have now been overrun by tourists.