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If you have ever visited France in December you will know what I mean when I say it is one of the most romantic times of year to visit this beautiful country.

France starts celebrating Christmas from the very beginning of December in some regions. It is a very big country and Metropolitan France is divided into twenty two regions. Some regions have different traditions of their own and this can be seen with the Christmas traditions in many areas.

In some parts of France Christmas starts on December 6th with Father Christmas, who is known as le Père Noël, bringing gifts for all the children whereas in other regions, children leave their shoes near the fire on Christmas Eve for Father Christmas, le Père Noël, to leave them small gifts and nuts and sweets.

Most homes will have a Nativity scene known as a crèche or crib, with figures of Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus, wise men and animals etc.

This is more traditional than the Christmas tree although this is found in many homes nowadays.

It appears that the origins of the Christmas tree date back to 1521 when it appeared for the very first time in the town of Sélestat which is in the Alsace region of France between Colmar and Strasbourg. It is mentioned in the records of the city of Sélestat in the Humanist Library or the Bibliothèque Humaniste which is one of the oldest public libraries in the world.

It is remarkable how a custom started in this French region continued through the years and across the globe. Of course, the Alsace region in the fifteenth century was part of the Germanic world (having been part of the Roman Empire prior to this) and although the tradition continued through the 17th and 18th centuries it did not really catch on in France until much later. In its history during the 19th and 20th centuries Germany and France contested it's possession of the region four times in seventy five years.  This is probably why the tradition did not catch on with the French people as In France the nativity scene and the Yule log was much more popular and traditional.

The Alsace is a region of France which you will truly enjoy for your Christmas experience in France. The food is plentiful and you will find there is plenty of wine, beer and of course the fragrant eaux-d-vie.

The Christmas markets of Kaysersberg, Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Colmar are a joy to behold. In Strasbourg the Christmas market or Christkindelsmärik has been held around the cathedral since 1570 so a visit to this Christmas market will be a great treat for all the family. The cathedral or the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg is beautiful and well worth a visit as are the half timbered houses in the Bain aux Plantes of the old quarter which are so very pretty.

It is very cold in the Alsace at this time of year in contrast to the hot summers but I feel that this is definitely a wonderful place to visit for everything magical it has to offer.

The Alsace is famous of course for its wines, mostly of a Germanic origin. When shopping you will find the charcuteries offer the most wonderful sausages and all kinds of pork and goose products as well as their famous pickled cabbage - choucroute or sauerkraut.

For those of you who have a sweet tooth the bakeries will astonish you with their displays of breads, the sweet and salted bretzels, cinnamon cakes, marzipan buns and the huge kugelhopfs.

I love the kugelhopfs and if you have never seen or heard of them, they are a cross between bread and cake, in fact much like a brioche but not as sweet. I love them with dried fruit in them but they can be seen with a savoury flavour with pieces of bacon in them too.

This cake is what I like to make at Christmas as it is great with a cup of coffee when you get tired of the rich Christmas foods. It also lasts for days so is good to have in for a quick treat. You don't see many of them here in the United Kingdom whereas there are plenty of other cakes around at this time of year such as the German stollen or the Italian Panettone.

If you do visit this lovely region of France for Christmas, do try and buy one of these cakes, they are in my opinion a real Alsatian treat. You will find some great properties at French Connections for this fairy-tale region.

For some help with your Christmas recipes, there are some lovely ideas at French Recipes to love. So whether you are at home with your families or on holiday you will have some great ideas for a lovely French Christmas.

For this month's recipe I thought you may like the traditional cake from the Alsace which I assure you is very easy to make and to make it even easier I have given you two methods to choose from.

Have a wonderful Christmas wherever you are, Joyeux Noël and Bonne année.

Kuglehopf

You will need an 8 inch traditional kougloff cake tin to make this cake which is a fluted tube tin or you can use a savarin tin. If you don't have either, a good pudding basin will do the trick but it will not give you the lovely traditional pattern with the hollow centre - however it will still taste good.

Ingredients

  • 4oz raisins
  • 4 tablespoons rum
  • 1oz fresh yeast or 1 teaspoon fast action yeast such as Allinsons
  • 8fl oz milk
  • 9oz plain flour
  • 3oz butter cut into small pieces
  • 1oz chopped slivered almonds
  • 2oz sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 egg
  • Icing sugar for sprinkling

Method

I will give you two different methods here, one for the traditional way and one if you wish to make it in a bread tin to start it off.

Prepare your tin by lightly buttering it and sprinkle the almonds into the sides and bottom.

Traditional Method

  • Sprinkle the raisins with the rum and soak them for a few hours until well soaked.
  • Mix the yeast in a bowl with about 6 fl oz of warm milk (not hot).
  • Stir in 2oz of the flour and mix well with a wooden spoon.
  • Sprinkle the remaining flour over it and do not knead; cover with a tea cloth or cling film and leave in a warm place until the mixture rises and lifts the flour.
  • Mix in the flour, the sugar, salt, butter, egg and remaining milk.
  • Knead for a few minutes.
  • Place the dough into the tin or basin to about half way up the tin and leave to rise in a warm place until it doubles in size.
  • Place in the pre heated oven at 190C/375F/Gas5 for about 35 minutes until golden brown. Test if it is cooked through by piercing with a skewer in the centre - if it comes out clean it is cooked if not give it a few more minutes.

Note:

If you are using dry yeast, mix it in with the other ingredients and it only needs one rising in the tin before baking.

Bread Machine Method

Follow the instructions for your bread machine for the order that the ingredients go in but here is what I do with mine. The yeast must not come in contact with the salt as it will kill the yeast.

Place the dried yeast in bottom of bread tin then the flour and follow with all the other ingredients. Depending on your bread machine model, you just need to knead the bread and I use the Pizza mode.

Place the dough into the kuglehopf tin and place in a warm place to rise to double its size then bake in pre heated oven for about 35 minutes as above method.