Hosting Christmas in Rural France

Author ELSKE RAHILL‘s efforts to showcase her SUSTAINABLE LIFESTYLE in Burgundy fails to impress her FAMILY VISITORS


When I moved to rural France five years ago, it was mainly because Dublin city life was unaffordable – I was tired of working any job I could get, any time I could, just to make ends meet, and only writing fiction during the hours normally reserved for sleep. I also had notions; I saw this as an opportunity to live with more integrity.

My partner owned a very old house on the very old square of a small, underpopulated, agricultural town, Chatel-Censoir. I was seven months pregnant and we already had two children. The move signalled a whole new lifestyle. We would live rent-free, grow our own food, eat wild meat, re-use greywater, and heat the house sustainably. The kids would play in the river and trees instead of on screens, we would consume less, work less, live more …

Despite some failed crops, a failed attempt at using cloth nappies, and the horrors of pigeon-gutting, I felt we had, for the most part, achieved our goals. I was quite pleased with myself. But then came my turn to host family Christmas. There is nothing like the cold light of the familial gaze to expose the cracked floor tiles and soil-grubby fingernails of ones’ alternative lifestyle.

Four days before Christmas, two brothers, two of my sisters and my dad arrived from various corners of the globe. One of my brothers lives a vegan lifestyle in London, the other is a superfood-loving boxer, also vegan, who lives in Dublin city centre. My baby sister has become a high-flying New Yorker and does something I don’t understand involving large amounts of money; my middle sister is a HSE worker and TCD lecturer who knows which Rathgar cafés do the best flat whites. They are used to a slightly different way of life.

Christmas here in France is not quite the same as in Dublin. What I miss most is a proper, real Christmas tree. Here, everyone I know assembles one from a box (yes, more practical, arguably more sustainable). And there is far less of a hoo-ha here in general. A big fir is erected in the square, clumsily strewn with tubes of lights. On the day itself, small gifts are exchanged, fish is eaten, moderate quantities of alcohol are consumed. The church, with its rather frustrated fire-and-brimstone priest, is just as under-attended as it is every Sunday – most people here are secular.

The day before my family arrived, I stayed up until 3am desperately scrubbing, cleaning and planning. I thought I was great. The first thing my dad said, however, was, “Elske, have you not sorted your kitchen yet? It wouldn’t cost much, just go to Ikea!” My sister added, “I’ll help you clean up.”

Never mind. I had big plans for my vegan dishes. For months I had been perfecting the art of growing oyster mushrooms on used coffee grounds. My success rate was 50/50 – sometimes it just turned to green mush, and sometimes it was attacked by fruit flies, but now I had two crops almost ready to harvest. I had been practising a herby flatbread, and was going to serve it for starters with garlic-sautéed oyster mushrooms. To keep with the fish tradition, my sister had brought wild Irish salmon. Having recently attended a village Tupperware party (an experience I am slow to forget) I had acquired all the tools for some impressive-looking “dômes de saumon, fromage blanc et noix”.

I had also bought some very expensive vegan pâté with an unhealthy grey hue to it, and all the ingredients for a Christmas nut loaf. I still hadn’t sourced any Brussels sprouts (considered pig food, apparently, in France), but had collected a bucket of gnarly-looking parsnips and a crate of potatoes from a nearby organic farm.

Earlier in the winter, to avoid supporting the battery pork industry, we had teamed up with two other families to buy a free-range pig, and hired a qualified animal-killer to do the job. The whole affair was pretty traumatic and slightly occultish – after the killing, we all drank wine and shared fresh boudin noir, a kind of black pudding without the oats – and ate it together while the slaughtered animal hung nearby, awaiting further butchering. The freezer still held the ingredients for homemade pork pâté, and the finest filet mignon to go with Christmas dinner.

We had also gone to great lengths to source an organic free-range turkey. It was insanely expensive. I made stock with the neckbone and the bird had to be kept on a high window sill, because it wouldn’t fit in the fridge.

As for gifts – after writing eco-education newsletters for six months, I was determined to create upcycled gifts. Since October, I had been frantically knitting socks with pure lambswool from a German company with ecocerts all over the ball-band. I cut the care advice from the label and attached it to the socks. Upon receipt, my dad said; “Elske, what’s the story with these socks – they have a tag, did you buy them or what? It’s in German – I can’t read that!”

The kids had been planning their creations for months. My eleven-year-old had been collecting corks and had great ambitions for picture-frames and candle holders. We ordered a big bag of soya candle wax and cotton string, and collected “interesting” tins, anything that might make a good container for a candle. We were up much of Christmas Eve night with craft knives and environmentally unfriendly glue but eventually he had an array of homemade gifts for his aunts, uncles and grandad.

My ten-year-old had even higher ambitions – he wanted to make bathbombs and shower gels. This involved fancy bottles, castile soap, expensive essential oils, glycerine, Epsom salts, bicarbonate soda and citric acid. Much of this was ordered from Amazon. Ethical living is a complicated affair. Thankfully, my four-year-old was content to make star-shaped biscuits, though he ate half of them himself.

We heat the house using a wood burner, fuelling it with wood that we cut and replant in a nearby sustainable forest. The problem is that the fire should be fed every four hours, so by morning it is often very cold. On Christmas morning I was awoken by my two sisters getting into my bed, complaining of the cold and asking for breakfast, and arrived in the kitchen to find my dad huddled at the open cooker. They were also rather nonplussed at the toilet, which we flush with buckets of wastewater from the washing machine. They kept scurrying to a neighbour’s house, rather than use the buckets.

In any case, we had a pleasant scrambled-eggs breakfast and exchange of gifts (though some were still setting), but come time to harvest the mushrooms I found they had been infested during the night by a colony of fruit flies and could not be eaten. I used a jar of forest mushrooms from the cupboard. The vegan pâté was truly horrible. The pork pâté was delicious, but as I began to boast about all we had been through to attain non-industrial pork, faces blanched and both the pâté and the filet mignon were barely touched. We couldn’t fit everything in the oven either, and had to ask the neighbours if we could use theirs. In the end we ate well, drank a lot – and after the traditional family rows, spent the rest of the night sitting around the fire playing board games and eating chocolates.

This year we are spending Christmas in Ireland.

In White Ink by Elske Rahill (Lilliput) is out now.

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