How the French Celebrate the Spring Holidays
If you are in France during Pâques (Easter), don’t expect to see Peter Cottontail hopping down the bunny trail - Easter treats are delivered by church bells with wings. The story is during Holy Week the church bells fly to the Vatican to be blessed, and when they fly back to their French villages, they drop candies for the children to find. However, if you are visiting the French region of Alsace, they do believe in the Easter Bunny because of their German history. This region is the only region in France that observes Good Friday as a national holiday. The people of Alsace insisted on this stipulation when they were retroceded to France in 1945. The bunny does play a part in the celebration of Easter all over France. The Chocolatiers’ windows, with their opulent displays of chocolate bunnies, lambs and bells, entice the eyes of many a French citizen. Some French people say that Easter displays in the chocolate shops are the most spectacular of all celebrations.
Bunnies and lambs can also be seen on the French Easter dinner plate. The French celebrate Easter with a feast of Spring offerings such as: soup of spring onion and potato, gratins of zucchini, and asparagus with Hollandaise. For entrees, lamb is the most popular, with Gigot D’Angneau - roasted, herbed lamb or Navarin D’Agneau which is a lamb stew. Lamb symbolically refers to the “Lamb of God.” Additionally, lamb is the freshest meat during Spring making it a popular main dish. Some French people feast on Rabbit stew, and coastal towns enjoy oysters, mussels and langoustines.
Eggs, of course, are a huge part of the Easter celebration. The French use the egg, symbolizing life, in many ways. Earliest celebrations had the French dying eggs in beet juice to symbolize the Blood of Christ. There is also a special Easter Dish called Pâté de Paques de Limousin. It is a hard-boiled egg, surrounded by a thick cream of spinach and nettles, encased in puff pastry.
Dessert, as you would expect, is spectacular. Pound cake, which uses many eggs, is a popular dessert. Some people make it in a mold of a lamb, while another popular cake is one that looks like a nest (made of puff pastry) and then is filled with chocolate eggs.
Eggs also play a role in the Jewish celebration of Passover. The holiday meal, which is celebrated on the first two nights of the eight day holiday, is called a Seder. It is during this dinner the story of the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt is recounted. Jews all over the world have a Seder Plate that consists of a lamb shank bone, symbolic of the Passover sacrifice, a hard-boiled egg, representing Spring and the circle of life, Salty water, which is symbolic of tears, bitter herbs, the bitterness of slavery, three pieces of Matzo, the unleavened bread to symbolize that the Israelites left in a hurry and did not have time to let the bread rise, and Haroset, which symbolizes the mortar used to lay the bricks by the slaves in Egypt.
France has the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third largest Jewish population in the world. The vast majority are Sephardic and originated in North Africa and the Mediterranean region.
Haroset made by Sephardic Jews differs from their Eastern European brethren. The Sephardic version is made of dates, apricots and nuts, whereas the Ashkenazi make it out of apples and nuts. The Sephardic Jews traditional meal is quite different from the Ashkenazi, because the Sephardic Jews allow eating legumes during Pesach, whereas the Ashkenazi cannot. The French Sephardic Jews’ feast for Passover is influenced by the cuisine of their ancestors who originated from North Africa, Spain, Portugal and the Middle East. They serve vegetables stuffed with rice and aromatic herbs and spices. They top Matzo bread with spicy tomato sauce, they flavor their chicken broth with cumin and cilantro and usually lamb or fish is served as the entrée. They use spices with bold flavors such as cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, tamarind, and sumac.
The French Muslim people celebrate Ramadan with a month of fasting during daylight hours. There are five to seven million Muslims who live in France. They originate from places all over the world. They abstain from eating and drinking during daylight. In France, the sun goes down around 8:00pm, so French Muslims will generally break their fast gently. Some start with a light broth. Families usually come together to break the fast. The North African Muslims may enjoy a Burek - a meat pie of ground lamb or chicken and eggs in a crispy phyllo dough. Whereas Muslims who originated in the East will enjoy a similar dish called a Samosa - a fried or baked pastry with a savory filling of spiced potatoes, meats or lentils. A French Muslim woman living in Paris said she enjoys breaking the fast by trying other Muslim food that is not from where her family originated. She, of course, celebrates her own heritage with family and friends, but says after all this is France - it’s always about the food!