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France abandons itself to Christmas venison, truffles and red, red wine

Mary Dejevsky counts the cost of Gallic cheer and celebration
Anyone with qualms about conspicuous consumption would do well to give France a wide berth at Christmas. For two weeks now, the markets have been stuffed to bursting with seasonal fare. From oysters and lobsters to foie gras and game of every variety, everything is available (at a price), and nothing disguises its origins.

The foie gras is displayed in windows full of cheerful- looking china ducks and geese. The haunches of venison and boar still bear their bristles. Flocks of pheasant and partridge hang in full feather, while the capons, France's most sought-after Christmas dish, are laid carefully side by side, their heads resplendent with red comb and ginger feathers.

In the chocolate shops and patisseries, the myriad St Nicholases of early December have come and gone, replaced by the chocolate and coffee logs that are the French family Christmas pudding.

But you can't escape temptation by steering clear of the markets. In the days before the feast, the French media provide constant updates on the food situation - and not just in the commercial breaks.

Some 90 minutes' viewing on Sunday evening, which included the main news on two channels, provided reports and features that amounted to an almost complete Christmas menu.

A documentary on smoked salmon detailed the different methods of preparation and explained why some people are prepared to pay up to 70 per cent more for the "hand-smoked, hand-sliced" variety, even though "no one really smokes over wood any more, whatever the label says".

A feature on truffles - from detection by truffle-hound, through hush- hush negotiation of the sale at market, to what the top chefs do with them - followed hard on the heels of a discussion of foie gras. "The first question," said the elegant blonde expert, "is: duck or goose. A majority choose duck; it is slightly smoother, more perfumed."

And what, said the hapless interviewer, about mousse de foie gras?" Our expert said, with a patronising smile: "Ah well,that's something quite different. If we're honest, it's bought by people who can't afford foie gras. It's very tasty, but it's not foie gras."

A couple of days earlier, the evening news had regaled us with information about the country's favourite oysters this season (from Marennes in western France, should you want to know), and the latest episode of the perennial debate on new-fangled ways to to open them.

But the drawback to Christmas, of course, is the bill. The "average" family - one French market researcher estimates - will spend 149 francs (pounds 17) per head on the Christmas meal this year, up Fr9 since last year and well ahead of inflation. It did not say whether this was because people were splashing out a little more, or whether the price of luxury foods has just risen more than that of other goods.

The menu, and the budget, look something like this: oysters (Fr70 to Fr110 a dozen, at least six each); foie gras (Fr200 buys a pot just sufficient for eight); a fair-sized capon (Fr350), and a chocolate log - Fr170-plus - even from the most ordinary patissiere.

All that is without the vegetables, the salad and the cheese course, the petits fours or the chocolates. It is also before you have chosen the Chablis to accompany the oysters, the Sauternes for the foie gras, the vintage Bordeaux for the capon, and the champagne and cognac.

You can cut maybe 20 per cent off the bill by going out of town to shop at the hypermarket, but there is a social cost. It is like settling for mousse de foie gras: whatever you do, don't admit it.

The Panzani-William Saurin company, part of the Danone group, withdrew prepared pasta meals and canned stews from sale yesterday, acknowledging that the food might contain British beef imported before the European embargo was imposed. Their decision followed inquiries by the French food standards authority.