A relaxed friendly hands-on cooking holiday in the Dordogne, France
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Fruits de Mer

So, what forms the centrepiece of a French Christmas dinner?...

Well, for a start, they don’t celebrate Noel the way the Brits do in as much as the whole thing in general is nowhere near as commercialised. Likewise, not for them a gargantuan force-fed, battery-farmed turkey.

No, the French Christmas dinner – eaten late on Christmas eve after opening a modest array of humble gifts – is shellfish. And not just any old mound of randomly picked seafood, but a full-blown multi-tiered Fruits de Mer piled high on a salver of crushed ice and ozone-fresh seaweed.

'Seafood Platter', anyone..?

In England you might call this a ‘Seafood Platter’, but that hardly does it justice. And, when done well, few dishes are at one moment so impressively sumptuous, decadent and suggestive as Fruits de Mer.

A generous spread...

Because Christmas is a time for generosity, extravagance  and, let’s face it, a bit of showmanship, it’s a good time to push the boat out. But, despite its luxury status – often with a perceived price tag to match – Fruits de Mer can be a fairly inexpensive set piece to assemble.

Obviously, oysters, crayfish, langoustine and lobster are going to bump up the price, but you only need one or two of the bivalves per person and you can substitute crab for its more costly cousins. And don’t forget you can bulk out the array with cheaper – and equally tasty -  prawns, brown shrimps, mussels, cockles, winkles, whelks and razor clams, etc.

You may have to order your selection a few days in advance, but what you’re looking for is an eclectic range of colourful and interesting shellfish. Bivalves should be chosen raw and prepared and cooked with special care (see below), but prawns and the like can be purchased ready prepared (often cooked at sea in sea water and immediately frozen for freshness).

Buying and preparing mussels, cockles, razor clams, etc...

Many people are put off buying and eating bivalves by a certain mysticism and air of complication surrounding their purchase and preparation.  But they are very simple creatures, living in the sand or attached to a rock, sucking in sea water at one end and squirting it out at the other. 

There really is very little to fear but the trouble is, along with all the nutrients and healthy minerals that get sucked into your basic mollusc, with it can come some unwanted stuff as well.  It is this simple filter feeding process that gives rise to stories of people writhing around in agony losing half their body weight in a day. 

This needn't be the case if only a few very simple rules are followed:

That’s it.

Serves four

Ingredients & Method...

There are no hard and fast rules here in terms of quantities, but here is a rough guide (quantities are per person):

Mussels (x10), Cockles (x10), Winkles (x10), Whelks(x2), Razor clams (x2): steam in a large saucepan until just opened, drain and allow to cool.

Oysters (x2): cradle in a folded tea towel to protect your hand and crack the hinge by twisting a stout knife  inserted in the pointy end. Cut the ‘root’ to remove the flat lid and discard any bits of broken shell.

Prawns (x6),  Langoustine (x2) & Brown shrimp (x10): Serve whole i.e. shell-on

Crab (¼) or Claws (x2): cleave whole crab into four quarters or serve claws pre-cracked (and supply nut crackers and crab forks)

Lobster: half a tail or 1 claw (pre-cracked)


Presentation is all: choose your largest and best platter and, if you have one, place a cake stand in the middle to give the dish some height.

If serving immediately, spread the two surfaces with roughly crushed ice and, if you have it, seaweed. If serving later, substitute the ice with course sea or rock salt.

Now arrange the shellfish artfully over and around the two tiers, having one or two langoustines and prawns dangling over the side.

Serve with lemon wedges and good quality mayonnaise. Oh, and don't forget the finger bowls!


You have permission to publish this article and recipe electronically or in print, free of charge, as long as the following byline is included (a courtesy copy of your publication would be appreciated):

"Jim Fisher is an English chef who runs relaxed friendly hands-on cooking courses in the Dordogne region of south west France. Contact him via: or Tel: 0033 (0)553 302405"












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5 Day/5 Night Cooking Courses Include:

  • Expert hands-on tuition with British chef

  • All courses conducted in English

  • All cooking ingredients, equipment and aprons

  • A continental breakfast each day

  • Lunch each day

  • Dinner
    (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday & Friday)

  • Tea, coffee and wine

  • An evening meal on the day of your arrival

  • En suite centrally-heated accommodation

  • Recipe pack containing all the dishes cooked during your stay

  • Entrance fees to places visited

  • Private and secluded pool

  • Internet and Email

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    Some of the things you'll be doing on the cooking course:

    Learn how to cook pastries, breads and soups

    Select and prepare the best fish and shellfish

    Butcher common joints of meat

    Cook classic French and Italian sauces

    Construct modern dressings

    Master the art of stylish contemporary food presentation