Travel Dreams Advent Calendar, December 24: France

Bon soir! Today we visit the land of croissants, stinky cheese and berets, France. Better a stinky cheese than a stinky beret! I've picked France to be our country for Christmas Eve because of food.Christmas in France shares much in common with the other traditions that we have visited. They have their own Christmas markets, some of the biggest in Europe. They celebrate Saint Nicholas day on the 6th, although they call him Pere Noel, or Father Christmas. They were early adopters of the Christmas tree tradition brought over from the Prussian noble families. France is a Catholic country as well, so Advent calendars and nativity scenes are common.France is a popular destination during the Christmas season for Christmas tourism, visiting the markets and churches.Tonight in France, many families have gone to midnight mass and are having the most important meal of the holiday season, Christmas Eve dinner, which can start after midnight mass!In my travels to France, I have been so impressed by the food, by the respect that the French have for food. Waiters are not college students making ends meet, they are trained professionals that know food well. You could not trust a mere college student to be responsible for the most important cultural treasure!I have dined in fine Parisian restaurants, enjoying steak au poivre with perfect frites and bernaise, then creme brûlée. I've eaten in a chateau (thanks to a divine Rick Steves tour of France), a filet mignon with truffles and a pear wrapped in bacon and pepper, sitting in a pool of melted blue cheese. Sacre bleu! Of all of the French traditions that I most admire, its the cheese.Oh, cheese. I have a serious weakness for it. I used to eat a bowl of melted cheddar as an after school snack. That was either gross, or a brilliant culinary evolution towards fondue! Some of the best meals I've had in Europe have featured cheese as the main course.In France, cheese is not a trifle. It's not an appetizer. It's a course unto itself, served after the main course, but arguably better. I was once presented in France with a veritable mountain of cheese and was allowed to choose whatever and as much as I wanted. I still wonder if that was a dream.A cheese course. This is the tradition that I suggest you add to your holidays to make them more French. You can still do this tonight, for Christmas Eve or Christmas day, you still have time! Simply go through your fridge and see what you've got. If you happen to have a tiny bit of a bunch of cheeses, blend them together in a food processor and make a lovely cheese pate with crackers. If you have access to a store, you can easily make the classic baked Brie, which is what we are having after our main course tonight.Soft and crusty at the same time, brie can come in a variety of strengths. I like a smooth and gentle one, not too aggressive in flavor. Brie pairs well with fruits and sweets like honey. You can really use your imagination, add pears, apples, jam, nuts...whatever you like. If I had my choice, I'd pair it with fig jam.So here is the easiest recipe yet, one that always impresses and always tastes great. Bring a little France to the party.Baked Brie1 small wheel of Brie1 sheet of puff pastry, defrostedHoneyWalnutsEgg whites, beatenCrackers, apple slices, breadWarm the oven to 400. Stretch defrosted puff pastry. Set the Brie in the center and smother with your choice of sweet, I suggest honey and walnuts. Wrap the Brie up and seal the seams well. Brush with egg whites.Bake at 400 for 30 minutes (or until the oven is smoking, in our case!)Serve warm with apples, crackers, toast or on its own.Merry Christmas to you all!