Where did Christmas markets start? Do I like them? And are they all the same?

You’ll probably be relieved to know that I have no idea of the answer to the first question. We see them in paintings from centuries gone by, or from depictions of Merrie England (or Holland, Germany or whatever). I’m beginning to answer my own second question. I love Christmas between 24 and 28 December, and actively dislike the way that it takes over much of our lives from the first Christmas trees in November through to the misery of the January credit card bills. And yet…

Are they all the same? Until this year, I probably would have said, yes. I’ve encountered them in a fair few places in Europe and the States. But having just returned from Paris, I have to admit that the French add their own flair, a certain je ne sais quoi, to the proceedings. Strolling through the Jardins des Tuileries this month (during the week when the rioters are at work other than rioting), you encounter a very large, very fine example. My first reaction (this from a man who hates shopping) is that there are stalls which sell things which a civilised person might wish to buy, as opposed to the usual tat. The next realisation is that the French cannot possibly take a tradition which has food stalls without moulding it into their own image. Thus, one may purchase foie gras; there are oysters of every size and price; and, of course, champagne by the glass, bottle or magnum. So no, they are not all the same.

But fear not, you will also find in Paris all the favourites from all over. Mulled wine and cider, burgers, sausages, candy floss and toffee apples. But also, as everywhere else, I guarantee giant pans of potatoes, bacon and cheese – today’s dish, tartiflette.

I had assumed this to be a recipe handed down through the mists of time. In fact, it was invented in the Savoy region of France in the 1980s to promote the sale of the local cheese, Reblochon. It’s basically a variation on a Dauphinoise, and should be baked in an oven, not made in a frying pan. What care we? It is a wonderful, cold day, stick to your ribs, artery clogging, heart stopping, winter warmer. (Mrs RM from Hawick, please do not feed this to your husband.)

A simple enough recipe, but just a couple of tips. Use waxy potatoes – you don’t want them to turn to mush. In the good old days you could buy a chunk of streaky bacon and make your own lardons (bacon cubes). These days even good butchers tend to buy in their bacon ready sliced. Keep trying to find it in chunks, but if all else fails you can buy lardons in supermarkets. On the cheese front, traditionally you should use a whole Reblochon cut horizontally. This will be between 400 and 500g. Alternatively you can use Vignotte or Taleggio cut into strips – or if you have left over soft stuff from a cheese board, why not chuck it in? It’s such a newcomer of a dish that they can’t possibly have created a prescriptive Chevalerie de Tartiflette yet. (Though that will probably come.) Remember that, as with any potato gratin, it will need much more seasoning than you think (bearing in mind that soft cheese is salty).

Ingredients (serves 6)

1.5kg waxy potatoes, peeled; 1 whole Reblochon cheese (see above) sliced horizontally; 250g bacon lardons (preferably smoked); 1 onion, finely chopped; 1 garlic clove, crushed; 100ml dry white wine; 200ml crème fraiche (use double cream if you prefer, or Elmlea); butter for greasing the dish and for frying; oil for frying (I prefer olive);  s & p.


Butter a baking dish. Preheat the oven to 200°C/Mark 7. Parboil the potatoes until tender (about 5 – 10 minutes). While the potatoes are boiling, gently fry the onions, bacon and garlic in some butter and oil until golden brown. Add the wine and simmer until most of the liquid has disappeared. Slice the potatoes. Layer half in the baking dish. Season well with s & p. Spoon over half of the onion and bacon mix. Add another layer of potatoes, seasoning, onion and bacon. Spread the crème fraiche over, then top with the cheese, making sure the potatoes are evenly covered. Bake until the cheese is bubbling and the dish is hot through. Assuming everything is warm when it goes into the oven, about 15 minutes.

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