A Noël Tale

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“A Noël Tale”

My last Christmas in France was 25 years ago, having since dedicated my life to my new found love: food and wine; from the kitchen first to specialized retail adventures. My point is, in the world of fine dining (I am trying real hard not to use the word “Gourmet” here), when the last few days before the climax of Christmas reach its peak, it’s all hands on deck to advise, suggest and supply the goods for all the gentle folks of a well tuned-in modern Ireland. Rushing to Dublin airport on the 24th to head back to France for a couple of days wasn’t somewhat appealing to me so I didn’t bother. And since I don’t fly and the Ferries are off duty, the choice was somewhat simple…

December Crossing, early 1997

So there it was, Christmas eve 1993, I had arranged to meet with two of my friends at the town market, the Topic twin brothers (pronounced “Topitch”) Dan and Manu, much appreciated chefs of our seaside town. Getting up early was the hardest part; we had to be there for 7:30 am at the latest armed with wicker baskets which as a novice and being the youngest, I had the job to be carrying, the rules of kitchens hierarchy . What was about to follow, was an amazing ballet choreographed by two pros. The fish mall first, oysters, sea bass, and clams. Check. The cobblestones as starting blocks, it was 7:30 am, the damp and slightly warm smell of this old building had me filled with mixed emotions, the excitement, the brouhaha, the cacophony, the angst of missing out, this was a game, with rules, tough for the players, tougher for the spectators, fools who were poorly prepared…

Vannes Fish Market
Vannes Fish Market

We headed then towards the “meat” arcade, old building where boxing games used to be held on “Place des Lices”, to give you an idea of the size! Foie Gras, Poularde de Bresse (famous free range hen from the East of France). Done. A quick detour to one of the five “Cheesemongers in vans” on the square for a bit of Mont d’Or and Fourme d’Ambert before reaching our final market destination, the old André’s place on “Poissonnerie Square” the Caracoli wine shop and coffee “torrefacteur” ( beans roaster)….

Mont d'Or
Vacherin Mont d’Or
Fourme d'Ambert half
Fourme d’Ambert


It was a bit like going to the doctor or in an old apothecary outlet I guess. You’d explain how and what you were cooking, even if the lads had a fairly good idea, André gave his final diagnosis and prescriptions.  For the oysters, a fresh and zingy Muscadet to get us started. For the farmhouse chicken, a nice Fronton, petite negrette grape should hit it. The Sea Bass and Clams? There is always the good old reliable Sancerre, but since the sauce contained a bit of butter (gentle euphemism if you ask me…) a Riesling from Alsace would be nice choice and it made the unanimity. I told André, while sipping on the beautiful wines, that it was the first time that I tasted Riesling, and that I liked it very much! I started to get tipsy, and it wasn’t even 9 o’clock yet! I thought out loud…

–  “I’ve never been to Alsace either!” Manu slapped me on in the back, in a brotherly manner…

– “Son, you are a typical Breton lad; you are only in your comfort zone within your borders and you are not wrong! So let me explain one thing to you! France, is a small country, wedged between Brittany and Alsace, you are both as stubborn as each other but you do great things!” Shouted André before bursting into one of his legendary laughs, and we all joined in while the giant roaster was still rotating and whispering, the smell of fresh toasted coffee beans was pleasantly soothing, the Riesling, gently intoxicating…

Alsatian Riesling

Back in Manu’s place, an old refurbished fisherman’s shack, the ceremonial of Oyster opening started. “Perfect month to eat them and the last” was the advice I kept from my mentor as they are supposed to be eaten in months finishing by “er”. I was never a fan; my sister could guzzle 12 of them for starters, it took me 20 years and maybe the presence of my dear friend to feel confident enough to enjoy them.  A squeeze of lime juice, and sipping Muscadet by the fire started to make a lot of sense. I followed and executed the order that the Fronton should be opened and let to breeze as soon as possible; it’ll be a wile yet before we’ll get to try it, so no panic.

Fronton from the South south West

Manu was at his craft, preparing the seafood, while Dan worked on the farmhouse chicken… The Riesling gentle acidity balanced to perfection the delicate flavours of the fish. Like the background rhythms of Chet Baker and John Coltrane, various delicacies followed, but that white wine from the East and my musician chef friend’s dab hand at preparing fish will stay with me forever…

Fish dish from last year

Eleven months later I was on a ferry heading for my new life in Ireland. The strong family bounds here and the respect for traditions, the end of year’s celebrations made it lovely for me, I really mean that! And even if from year to year I try to re-enact some pieces of my own culture, they feel more like fading memories, yellowing pictures on a shelf. I don’t have much left from my friend Manu, as in in not a lot of pictures, souvenirs… The last time I saw him was during a short visit in my home town of Vannes, in 2003. We took this last photo of us while he was working as a cook in a Bar-Restaurant behind the fish market, his wonderful blue eyes and Bosnian heritage. He never judged me when I was lost and always held a proverbial hand towards what was going to become my life… Somewhere in a cottage nested in the middle of our old salt marshes and on Christmas eve, the writing was soon to be on the wall… Thank you for everything man and a very Merry Christmas to all of you!

The Writing Will Soon be on the wall – UCD Dublin 1993

Until next time, Merry Christmas… And all that!

Franckie Hungry Breton and Manu Topic

Keep Well and Eat Happy

Slán Tamall



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