The holidays are always a busy time for me, writing, editing, planning future trips and reflecting on my previous year’s travels. Since so much of my work this time of year revolves around rehashing, refining and regurgitating what I learned while traveling around the Continent, I inevitably grow wistful for a little piece of Europe in my holidays.
How I add some European nostalgia to my holidays is simple — I live vicariously through food, films and books. I suppose we can dub them — food, films, books — the three wise men for adding Continental flair to your holidays.
I usually end up in the kitchen, whipping up recipes I collected on my travels. The smells, tastes and memories transport me back to my happy place, Europe.
These recent culinary (mis)adventures include quiche, dizzying arrays of charcuterie complemented with French and Italian wines, beef daube, chicken Provençal, ragù simmered for hours and my old winter standby, French onion soup.
I follow an onion soup recipe from a cookbook written by a EuroExperto subscriber, François de Mélogue. His book is called “French Cooking for Beginners,” and I am his target market. His recipe produces a deep, soulful soup that’s become inextricably linked in my mind with cold, dark wintry days. Heed his advice and make your own stock, which is why “Onion Soup-Cooking Day” in my house is always preceded by “Whole Roasted Chicken Night.” Topped with melted Gruyère and stringy mozzarella, some crispy French bread smothered in butter is all you need to make it a complete meal.
Obviously, François’ French onion soup is delicious as is, but a couple tweaks give this recipe some unique holiday flair. For example, the addition of a dash of cinnamon to the broth adds an aromatic dimension and complements the subtle sweetness of the onions. I’ve also added a slug of cognac — a boozey addition that extends depth of flavor. And instead of topping the soup with a slice of baguette, I sometimes garnish the steaming hot bowl with a crouton of crunchy, buttery brioche.
It’s a soup that’s just as comforting and satisfying today as it was in Paris almost two dozen Christmases ago. Bon appétit, friends.
I apologize if my description of French onion soup made anyone drool. Cooking food and drinking wine we brought back from Europe is a wonderful way to add that European feeling to the season.
But it doesn’t have to end at dinner! What’s better than following a grand meal with a comforting Christmas movie?
For good measure, I’ll throw in a European film with the warmth of a fireplace and the sparkle of a holiday light show. I turn off all the house lights except the multi-colored strands of Christmas tree lights and curl up with my family on the couch, huddled under a Pendleton blanket. Three favorites are “Love Actually” (UK), “The Holiday” (England), and “Amelie” (France).
The characters are lovable and their arcs conclude with certainty, faith, and love. (Oh, Hollywood…)
“Love Actually” (2003)
This comedy-drama with a talented cast is so British that it needs braces. “Love Actually” takes place around Christmastime in London, and all the love stories involve British people who don’t know each other, yet their lives intersect at various times. There’s a lot of humor and heartbreak.
“The Holiday” (2006)
This movie is about two lovelorn women (Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz) who swap homes for Christmas. Romance ensues, stops, then re-ensues. The scenes from Surrey, England make it all worthwhile.
Set in Paris and the French countryside, Amelie is a coming-of-age story that’s colorful and sweet, and simply charming. Did I mention it’s set in Paris? Because it is.
All three movies deftly deploy Europe as a backdrop, so they feature euro-centric holiday traditions, like Christmas markets, advent calendars, schnapps, fleeing the cold Northern Europe winter for Portugal and, naturally, caroling.
They also have the same sort of “festive, heartwarming” feeling I want from my European holiday movies.
From films and books (next week’s topic!) to European recipes, and, of course, wine, adding a touch of Europe to your holiday celebrations will bring a brighter, more festive atmosphere.
Because if I’ve learned one thing from rambling around Europe, it’s that the art of enjoying life is one skill we all should master.
During long, dark, cold winter days, I find myself reaching for Europe-based travel memoirs. Something about the real world as opposed to fiction fires my imagination for spring travels to come. Cuddled up with a cup of coffee or glass of wine and a good book is a perfect evening for me. Warm and rich, coffee-scented pages caress the fingertips. The page flickers like flame, but the light remains steady.
I’ve recently read or re-read four memoirs about Europe, all of which cover at least one calendar year, including the festive holiday season: Il Bel Centro (Michelle Damiani), Italian Neighbors (Tim Parks), A Year in Provence (Peter Mayle) and A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor).
I’m currently reading (for the first time…I know, shame on me) Italian Neighbors. Italian food and culture. Lovely, lovely, lovely prose. I just devour Parks’ writing. His keen eye for observation. His descriptions that reveal the familiar but show us how we actually perceive it is skewed. And I love his dry sense of humor that does not spare himself or others.
But most of all, I appreciate his ability to expose unvarnished truths and weave them into the cultural mosaic of Northern Italy, making historical connections along the way. Give it a read if you haven’t.
What are your favorite Europe-based travel memoirs? Hit reply and let me know.
Food, movies and a good book. Surrounded by family and friends, what more could we want from the holiday season? A trip to Vienna? Perhaps, but otherwise, nothing.
So, how do you bring a little touch of Europe into your home around the holidays?