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A Christmas Past in Paris, Cherishing a Bûche de Noël

A holiday market on the Champs-Élysées. In writing about the year her family experienced its first Christmas in Paris (including a jolt in plans), it was the bûche, topped with cocoa-dusted meringue “mushrooms,” that sent the writer down her remembrance of things past. CREATIVE COMMONS

It says something about a people’s thirst for delicacies when le tout Paris is elbow to elbow at the foie gras stand, under the stars, on one of the darkest, coldest nights of the year.

Wouldn’t it be easier to order in?

It was 1994: my husband, Irwin, and our 14-year-old daughter, Alexis, and I had landed in the City of Lights after two decades in Washington, where no one went out walking after dark. Yet here in Paris it was fine — expected, actually — to head for the nearest Christmas market well after sundown (4 p.m.!) and stock up on essentials.

Like caviar and capon — a nice, tender, castrated rooster.

Our veteran expat friends David and Becky explained the drill. Think festive: a turkey if the capon was sold out, Champagne, chocolate truffles and some stinky, brandy-washed époisse. Look for the fishmonger and ask for a couple dozen oysters, opened up for you on the spot and laid out on a bed of crushed ice. Race them home, taking care not to spill any of the precious oyster liquor, along with some butter from Normandie and a loaf of country bread.

But don’t overlook the charcutier and his precarious pile of sausages and hams, where you might inquire about the provenance of his pâté. And be sure to check out the pâtissiers’ various bûches de Noël and the fromagers’ competing Vacharin Mont d’Or. So runny it had to be eaten with a spoon and so wreaking of the risk of listeria poisoning it was like standing up to the devil — the sine qua non, in other words, of a decent dark-of-winter spread.

Our Paris rental, with its low ceilings and open kitchen, was in a bit of a no-man’s zone, in a featureless high-rise across from a train station at the less-desirable edge of the Fifth Arrondissement. Hearing the address, locals would sniff. No great bakeries, in other words. Never mind making our way to one of the twinkling Christmas markets popping up like champignons in chicer parts of town. It was a good 15-minute hike to get to the nearest open market. It was situated along the rue Mouffetard, a narrow medieval street rich in history and pastry shops and fondly known as la Mouffe.

Even then, the balance between clothing boutiques and fishmongers along la Mouffe was beginning to tip, but all seemed as it should on Sundays, when singers gathered to belt out Edith Piaf numbers near the church at the foot of the street, within spitting distance of the vendor we called Chicken Man. He’d see us coming and call out greetings from his streetside rotisserie, its rotating shoulder-to-shoulder birds bronzing above a rubble of fat-glazed potatoes.

David and Becky’s fellow expat friends Ida and Sydney lived at the top of la Mouffe. One Christmas Eve, they invited all of us to dinner.

They were more seasoned than us, wise and welcoming, keepers of a gracious century-old apartment with proper ceilings. Of course we’d come — where else would we be on Christmas Eve?

Actually elsewhere, at least one of us would soon find out.

David and Becky loved to cook, shunning restaurants as too smoky and touristy to be worth it. David improvised, jazz style, inventing dishes based on what looked good at the market. We tripped behind him as he zigzagged through his favorite grounds for hunting and gathering, the Marché d’Aligre. Wheeling his very French granny cart, he’d stop to bargain with his favorite Algerian street vendors before heading into the starchier centuries-old covered market, holding up lines while, like a true native, he zeroed in on the crunchiest boule, freshest shellfish and ripest Camembert.

Dinner chez Ida and Sydney would be a refined version of a potluck, it was explained. Alexis would help babysit for another couple’s kid. David was charged with acquiring oysters and bulots — briny sea snails plucked from their shells with toothpicks and dipped in aïoli. I would make the bûche de Noël.

No pressure.

I’d made desserts in my time, but I was new to the world of la bûche, and we were now living in the land of the bûche. Immutable tradition calls for a sheet of impossibly tender sponge cake, slathered with a tricky filling and seamlessly rolled up (without tearing!) before being delicately frosted, scored to look like chocolate “bark” and festooned with tiny cocoa-dusted meringue “mushrooms.” Which you make with a pastry bag and one of the exquisitely calibrated piping tips they sell at Mora, a professional pastry-supplies boutique near Les Halles dedicated to terrorizing clueless home cooks.

Somehow the tips were acquired, the ganache piped and a platter found, and I even managed to find something to wear. And that was when Irwin learned that as the junior member of his news agency’s Paris staff, he would be required to work. On Christmas Eve.

For approximately 10 seconds, I contemplated the possibility of staying home, making a late dinner in our American-style kitchen and welcoming home our chief breadwinner after a long day at work.

But then Alexis prepared to babysit, and I prepared to party.

Up the rue Mouffe we climbed, like pilgrims. As guests clattered into Ida and Sydney’s warmly furnished salon, surely, I thought, Irwin would soon be sprung and able to join us.

The parade of wines and great bites is a blur now. All I remember is finally greeting him after midnight — back at our quiet digs on the wrong side of the Fifth.

Leftovers aren’t a big tradition in France, so the next day we didn’t have much to offer. Only the traces of that bûche, which came home with us on our crumb-strewn platter.

“It’s not oysters and foie gras,” I admitted. “More like a memory of them.”

It’s 28 years later, we’re in New York City and in the midst of a pandemic. We no longer have Paris. But we’ll always have bûche. Assuming I can find those pastry tips.

Deborah Baldwin is a veteran editor and writer, most recently for This Old House; previously, she was an editor for The New York Times, working on the Style section and other parts of the newspaper. She and her husband, Irwin Arieff, wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s.

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