Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Christmas Underground

Forget the eggnog, Christmastime in France is when everyone pulls out all the stops and stuffs themselves with the most luxurious foods around: lobster and smoked salmon, caviar and champagne, fois gras and chocolates—it’s as if the holiday table were a buffet at the Cannes Film Festival.

This year is no exception, crisis notwithstanding. Supermarkets are at war over who has the best deals on oysters, towers of chocolates loom over store displays, and your waistline expands just browsing the aisles. That said, all that stuff adds up at the checkout counter, especially since when it comes to holiday entertaining, France is a friendly country, and those who don’t invite at least a dozen people over on the big day are considered slouches.

How to pay for all that without going into hock? There are ways. For one, I have detected a Christmas underground. There is an untold volume of undeclared traffic in holiday goodies. For example, friends of my in-laws, who are otherwise virtuous, church-going upholders of the law, seem to be the leaders of a chocolate smuggling ring. The details are shady, but every year a large Tupperware box of excellent chocolates appears at my in-laws courtesy of this couple, who do mysterious pickups at non-descript parking lots, and then sell their goods to their friends at bargain rates.

These networks seem to be very intimate, word-of-mouth operations. Just the other day, I was surprised to arrive at the home of an acquaintance and see a table full of vacuum-packed whole smoked salmons. Wondering if they had decided to have a bagel-and-lox-a-thon, I asked what was up. No, despite the recent frenzy for bagels (including an – urp – bagel hamburger) that was not it. It was another black market Christmas affair: I order a ton from my secret source, and you buy top quality at cut rates. I felt a pang of envy and wished that I was in on the deal. I wondered whose hands needed to be greased, and what the secret password was. I’m not usually one to defy the law for illegal or mind-bending substances, but good smoked salmon is an entirely different matter. Sign me up for next year.