A French wedding is less about the pomp and ceremony and more about the food, especially in Normandy, the northeastern region of France that offers land and seas finest fare.
A cold, grey weekend in December, we attended my nephew Ben and Lea’s wedding at the mayor’s office in Le Havre, an industrial city dominated by oil refineries and shipping docks. Bombed and destroyed during WWII, it was rebuilt in a Stalinistic style of cement cubes. The civil ceremony held at the Hotel de Ville was a bit carnivalesque especially since a display of Christmas toys and giant ferries wheel added color to the somber architect of town hall. At the imposing entryway, a petite, meticulously coiffed blond woman, mother of the bride, greeted us with air kisses and ushered us up the red carpeted stairs where people waited around like at a bus stop. At precisely 14:25, another wedding party exited one door of a main hall and we entered.
My handsome nephew, Ben, dressed in a tux, stood at the front and guests filled the seating area. Then the wedding march played for 25 seconds, while bride’s stepfather walked her to the altar. Lea wore a white ivory wedding dress with a bodice and long trail. I marveled that the balconette stayed in place throughout the festivity, though obviously she was more well endowed than I.
The mayor’s assistant conducted the ceremony in a friendly, fast food style service. After citing constitutional acts, she announced that Ben and Lea were joining in matrimony for the republic. During the ring exchange, she invited the proud, « paparrazzi » parents behind the pulpit to snap photos. Then she announced that they would repeat their vows on the top of the Ferris wheel, which at first I thought was a joke. The witnesses, a young blonde women in a black dress with an oval opening revealing a tattooed spine and a slender punk haired young man in black suit, stepped forward to sign the official papers. In less than 10 minutes, we were whisked out of the room and the next wedding party wave entered.
The real celebration, held in a tennis club that evening, in true French tradition, was a delicious olfactory and gustatory symphony. While guests stood chatting, caterers served petit amuse bouche (tongue ticklers)– mini toasts with salmon, bacon wrapped prunes, and mini meat pastries. Champagne flowed.
An artillery of cutlery and glassware lined each place setting where a five course menu featured the theme of apples, a symbol of Normandy. Our name inscribed on a galet, a polished, flat gray stone rock eroded from the cliffs lining the sea, indicated the seating arrangement. Family sat at one long table, friends at the other and the wedding party sat at the head table.
The 6-hour feast began with foie gras (stuffed goose liver) served on a bed of applesauce accompanied by Monbazillac, a sweet white Bordeaux. The coupe Normande, apple sorbet with a shot of Calvados (apple brandy), followed to clear the palate and help the digestion. The main course, baby duck in apple butter and gratin potatoes was served with a fine red Bordeaux wine.
The evening was animated by a lively DJ and between each course, we danced and played games such as an adult version of musical chairs. When the music stopped, guests had to scramble to find a belt, a wallet, a watch and other items and the last one fulfill the task was eliminated. The bridesmaid also read a comical poem, which was reenacted out by the wedding party.
After midnight, we savored a local cheese, Camembert. Then the grand finale, a buffet of cakes illuminated by sparklers. Just before coffee was served at 2 a.m., we rolled out the door, though festivities continued well into the wee hours of the morning.
Lea and Ben’s marriage united family and friends for an unforgettable night in Normandy. True to tradition, their wedding celebration begins and ends a table.