Paris at Christmas: vin chaud, buche de Noel

Traveling during the holidays has its advantages
Buche de Noel (log cakes) at a boulangerie in Paris.
Buche de Noel (log cakes) at a boulangerie in Paris.

Categories: Food, Life & Arts

Editor’s note: Gazette restaurant reviewer and food writer Caroline Lee just returned from Europe.

Who needs April in Paris? It rocks in winter, and prices are cheaper.

At 7:30 on Christmas morning I was sipping champagne at our hotel in Paris and thinking, what a good idea it is, traveling on the holidays. The airports are empty, the flight attendants are always extra-nice and you can get a great airfare, which we had.

The weather was in the 40s, a great temperature for doing lots of walking in a light coat with a big scarf worn swirled around your neck, like the Parisians do. Toss the scarf into a shopping bag if you’re too warm in the stores, and use the coat checks in the museums. Cold weather doesn’t keep you from having a great time in the City of Light.

Café tables lined the sidewalks, and coffee drinkers and smokers were toasty under the heated canopies. We saw cozy fleece blankets folded over chairs, and admired the culture that encourages drinking and dining outdoors all year round. There’s no cabin fever in Paris.

We discovered vin chaud, a hot, flavored red wine available all over the city, in cafes, fancy restaurants, or as we got it, at a kiosk beside the hulk of Notre Dame at dusk on Christmas Eve.

Vin chaud is kept warm in soup kettles, usually next to the chocolate, also chaud, and soupe d’oignon. I ordered “Deux,” holding up two fingers to emphasize the point.

“Deux?” asked the attendant. I nodded. My French was really coming along. He ladled the steaming, dark red liquid into two cardboard cups and popped on plastic tops with small holes for sipping. It was sweet, and as we held them with both hands and headed over the bridge to Ile St. Louis, we tasted cinnamon, cloves and orange.

The main street in this oldest part of the city is lined with small shops, gift stores and smart clothing stores, but best of all, food shops. The line was out the door at the Bouchere, with four butchers working side by side in the tiny shop, and in the window, poultry of all sizes from guinea hens to plump geese, some with their feathers still on.

At the boulangeries, the windows were filled with Christmas log cakes of every variety. In addition to the familiar chocolate buche de Noel there was a white-frosted buche decorated with pink macarons and fresh berries, a fresh raspberry-filled pink-and-white cake whose only resemblance to the classic cake was its shape, and a cocoa-speckled birch log. Best of all, there were tiny logs: delightful single-serve desserts.

The croissants in France are so much better. Topped with the higher-fat European butter, they were a rare treat. Also, they were not shaped into crescents, but straight. “They’re all air,” said husband Eric at breakfast, reaching for his third.

On our last night we took the Metro to the above-ground station at Bir Hakeim and walked to the Eiffel Tower. The tower glows with golden light, illuminated by over a thousand interior lamps directed upward from the bottom to the top. To our great surprise, the tower began to sparkle and twinkle, 20,000 lights flashing in a blazing frenzy.

We learned later that the tower puts on its show for five minutes every hour on the hour and we arrived at just the right time. What a wonderful way to wrap up our holiday trip, we thought, then headed back to the hotel and more champagne.


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