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Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?

If you've spent time in France over Christmas one thing you're likely to have noticed is the amount of fish and seafood that is around, so what are the roots of this festive tradition?

Why do the French eat so much seafood at Christmas?
Photo: asikkinsi/Depositphotos

From piles of oysters at Christmas markets to the December 24th banquet, fish and seafood is big news in France over Christmas.

The December 25th meal varies quite a bit from region to region and many French families just eat whatever they like with no particular regard for tradition.

READ ALSO The language you will need for Christmas in France

But one thing that is still widely observed in France is the Reveillon de Noël banquet on December 24th and for that there is only one thing to serve – seafood and lots of it.

Tradition dictates that this is a late-night feast often running past midnight and into the early hours, or sometimes not even beginning until the whole family has returned from Midnight Mass.

These days, however many families – especially those with young children – find that tradition a bit cumbersome so just have their sumptuous spread of fish at a more usual dinner time.

Exactly what is on the platter varies according to taste but you will usually see prawns, mussels, cockles, clams, langoustines, maybe a dressed crab or a lobster if it has been a particularly good year – and definitely oysters.

Oysters are a big Christmas tradition in France and there will generally be at least one oyster stall at most Christmas markets for a festive snack.

The seafood platter is generally served with bread, slices of lemon and other seasoning and a good mayonnaise or aïoli and accompanied by white wine or champagne.

But where does this tradition come from?

Is it because throwing a few prawns onto a plate is a whole lot easier and more pleasant for the cook than slaving away for most of the day to produce an enormous roast dinner with all the trimmings? Well no, although that is an undeniable bonus if you are in charge of the catering.

In fact the tradition dates all the way back to the Middle Ages and is Biblical in origin.

In the Catholic Church it was traditional for people to ether fast or eat a simple meal before feast days and that meant eating no meat.

Since tofu was yet to be invented, people generally ate fish on no-meat days – which included Friday and, for the more devout, the whole of the period of Lent before Easter.

Fish was widely seen as a second class foodstuff, and items like oysters were looked down upon as peasant food, a far cry from their status today as an expensive luxury item.

So while to modern eyes it might look like the sort of spread a Russian oligarch would sit down to, in fact your Christmas Eve fish feast represents a simple and humble meal. Just don’t expect that to be represented in the prices your fishmonger charges you.

Member comments

  1. Though my parents are now gone, my family and I have kept our culinary Christmas tradition. On Christmas Eve, dinner is always simple and after the Christmas mass, a good onion soup. On Christmas Day, at lunch a platter of oysters and other seafood will be served, as well as foie gras or smoked salmon, followed either by a leg of lamb or a roast goose (we are no fan of Turkey), accompanied by seasonal vegetables, or a Savoyard gratin (with cheese), then a salad and a cheese platter, all topped off with a Bûche de Noël preferably with moka cream, or a Charlotte with pears.

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Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

One thing everyone can agree on is that France has a lot of cheese - but exactly how many French fromages exist?

Reader question: Exactly how many different types of cheese are there in France?

Question: I often see a quote from Charles de Gaulle talking about ‘246 different types of cheese’, but other articles say there are 600 or even 1,000 different types of cheese and some people say there are just eight types – how many different cheeses are there in France?

A great question on a subject dear to French hearts – cheese.

But it’s one that doesn’t have a simple answer.

Charles de Gaulle did indeed famously say “How can anyone govern a country with 246 different types of cheese”, but even in 1962 when he uttered the exasperated phrase, it was probably an under-estimate.

READ ALSO 7 tips for buying cheese in France

The issue is how you define ‘different’ types of cheese, and unsurprisingly France has a complicated system for designating cheeses.

Let’s start with the eight – there are indeed eight cheese ‘families’ and all of France’s many cheeses can be categorised as one of;

  • Fresh cheese, such as cottage cheese or the soft white fromage blanc
  • Soft ripened cheese, such as Camembert or Brie
  • Soft ripened cheese with a washed rind, such as l’Epoisses or Pont l’Eveque
  • Unpasturised hard cheese such as Reblochon or saint Nectaire
  • Pasturised hard cheese such as Emmental or Comté
  • Blue cheese such as Roquefort 
  • Goat’s cheese
  • Melted or mixed cheese such as Cancaillot

But there are lots of different types of, for example, goat’s cheese.

And here’s where it gets complicated, for two reasons.

The first is that new varieties of cheese are constantly being invented by enterprising cheesemakers (including some which come about by accident, such as le confiné which was created in 2020).

The second is about labelling, geography and protected status.

France operates a system known as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC or its European equivalent AOP) to designate food products that can only be made in a certain area.

As cheese is an artisan product, quite a lot of different cheese are covered by this – for example a blue sheep’s milk cheese is only Roquefort if it’s been aged in the caves in the village of Roquefort.

There are 63 listed AOC cheeses in France, but many more varieties that don’t have this protected status.

These include generic cheese types such as BabyBel and other cheeses that are foreign in origin but made in France (such as Emmental).

But sometimes there are both AOC and non-AOC versions of a single cheese – a good example of this is Camembert.

AOC Camembert must be made in Normandy by farmers who have to abide by strict rules covering location, milk type and even what their cows eat.

Factory-produced Camembert, however, doesn’t stick to these rules and therefore doesn’t have the AOC label. Is it therefore the same cheese? They’re both called Camembert but the artisan producers of Normandy will tell you – at some length if you let them – that their product is a totally different thing to the mass-produced offering.

There are also examples of local cheeses that are made to essentially the same recipe but have different names depending on where they are produced – sometimes even being on opposite sides of the same Alpine valley is enough to make it two nominally different cheeses.

All of which is to say that guessing is difficult!

Most estimates range from between 600 to 1,600, with cheese experts generally saying there are about 1,000 different varieties. 

So bonne dégustation!