Gatherings & Celebrations: New Years Eve in Versailles and New York - #117

This is the Palace of Versailles.  It stands about fourteen miles west of Paris and it was built in the 1600s by order of Louis XIV, King of France.  Louis XIV was the most elegant and luxury-loving of all the kings of France.  And when it came to throwing a party Louis was, to say the least, opulent.  He left no peasant unturned in the pursuit of pleasure.  He was the party animal of his century.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Louis hated Paris.  It was a difficult town for him to control the other nobles, and it made him feel insecure.  As a matter of fact, on a number of occasions they had tried to kill him.  So he decided to get out of town and build himself a place in the country.  And while he was at it, he thought he would build a place that was so big, so luxurious, so magnificent that its sheer size would overpower the minds of the people who came here and make them feel small. And you know what?  It worked.

Versailles was a little country village when Louis started drawing up his plans.  When he finished, Versailles was one of the architectural wonders of the world.  There are eleven square miles of gardens to be weeded.  44,000 windows to be washed.  6,000 mirrors to be polished.  And it takes a team of four people over thirty days just to do the dusting.  On the other hand, it was a great place to visit.  Especially if you had been invited to one of the great parties.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Nice place.  Maybe a little too big for me now that all the kids have left home.  But it was great for Louis, especially when he would have one of his little dinner parties for five or six thousand of his closest friends.  And it was ideal for a New Year’s Eve celebration... which is what this program is all about.

FILM CLIP:  Ann Miller singing “Auld Lang Syne.”

Some historians believe that our very first ritual was the one we designed to celebrate the start of a new year.  It usually makes sense to start at the beginning.  But how do you decide when the beginning begins?  Interesting problem... and societies have answered the question differently from century to century and from place to place.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Very often a society will choose the date for its New Year’s based on something that’s happening in nature.  A change in the weather.  The beginning or the end of a growing season.  The return of a favorite food source, either animal or vegetable, to the neighborhood.  For hundreds of years, the people in Europe liked March as the beginning of the year; it was the end of the winter, the beginning of spring, the earth was coming alive again -- clearly, this could be the start of something grand.

But there were some cultures that liked fall for the start of a New Year, and we still feel that influence. The school year starts in the fall.  Many corporations begin their fiscal year in the fall.  And the new TV season begins in the fall.  Originally the French went for New Year’s on Easter Sunday.  Nice time for the celebration of rebirth.  And it was also a good season for eating.  The food was younger, the wine was older.  The French have always understood the importance of coordinating their gatherings and celebrations with what’s good to eat.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The idea of celebrating New Year’s on a day where nothing much was happening in Nature comes from the ancient Romans.  They were using a calendar with ten months.  Tight budget, I guess.  Their first month was March and their last month was December. At the end of December, everybody just stopped counting until the March came back.  At one point, someone, we think they were  probably in Egypt, decided to fill in those sixty days with two new months. The Roman Senate loved it, called them January and February, and made January 1 the official opening day of the new year. Now, this was quite a change, because suddenly we had the totally arbitrary ideas of Man taking the place of Nature. Eventually, just about everybody in Europe accepted January 1 as the opening day of the new year, just to go along with the Romans, and that’s where it still is.

There’s an old belief that the food and drink of New Year’s Eve will influence your life during the coming year.  The Romans would cover their tables with all the foods they loved.  They thought that the table held the Luck of the Coming Year.  So you wanted to cover the table with a sample or symbol of everything you wanted for the future.  If you left something out, you ran the risk of not having it during the coming year. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   The foods that traditionally show up at New Year’s are designed to show two sides of our personalities.  The first set of foods are always simple, inexpensive, easy to make.  They want to show that we are not wasteful, and are therefore deserving of good things in the new year.  The second set of foods are very expensive and extravagant.  Basically they want to send a signal to the Great Spirit that says, “Excuse me!  Could I have more of this good stuff in the new year?”

The shape of the foods that are eaten on New Year’s is also important.  Breads should be well-rounded... the way you would like your year to be.  No long-shaped loaves with an open end where good luck might escape.  Same for pasta.  Pasta served at New Year’s will usually be round rather than straight.  It’s also time to eat something unusual in the hope that something or someone new will come into your life.  In some cultures New Year’s is a time for gift-giving. The ancient Romans often gave gifts of food.  Most typical were nuts and dates, dried figs, honey and sweet cakes.  Nuts were often used as a food to mark the start of something new.  You can still see that idea in action.   On New Year’s the French give jars of Marrons glaces...cooked chestnuts in sweet syrup.  Nice with ice cream. 

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Chocolate is a common gift at New Year’s.  You can give somebody a box of rich sweet chocolate as an expression of your hope that they will have a rich and sweet year.  And I guess if you feel differently about somebody else, you can send them a bar of “unsweetened bitter.”

Across the road from the palace of Versailles is The Trianon Palace Hotel.  It was built in 1910, and quickly became a favored location for the gatherings and celebrations of the French upper-crust... and it still is.  The hotel’s property is set out on seven acres of parkland at the edge of the King’s former estate.  You can sit at the tables of the restaurant and look out at sheep grazing on the same fields as the sheep of Queen Marie Antoinette.  Her little make-believe farm was just down the road.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  Now, they tell me that those sheep are actually the direct descendants of the sheep owned by Marie Antoinette.   Can’t confirm that, though, until I get back the DNA report.  I can, however, confirm that the hotel is quite magnificent.

When you arrive at the front of the building, a young man at the door has a list with the names of all the guests that are expected to arrive that day.  He has your assigned room numbers and from the very first moment you come in contact with the hotel you are made to feel at home.  Small touch, but very nice.   Splendid entrance area... elegant public rooms... spa facilities and swimming pool... a Michelin Two-Star restaurant just so you don’t lose too much weight in the spa... and a chef who’s going to prepare a few of the dishes he likes to serve on New Year’s Eve.

Vincent Thiesse is his name, and his first recipe is for Chicken Provençal.  It’s easy to do, which is good for the home cook.  It does not contain any expensive ingredients, which sends a message that you are not extravagant and therefore deserving of good things in the New Year.  And it tastes great. 

Vincent starts by cutting a chicken into eight parts, which you can do yourself, or you can have it done at the market. I belong to Let Your Butcher Do It school.  I should also mention that when I made this recipe at home I used four whole chicken breasts, skin off, bone in.  It gave me four equal portions and made life easier and healthier.  A little salt goes on.  Some oil is heated in a deep pan.  The chicken goes in... in one layer... and gets cooked for three minutes on each side or until the surface is brown.

While the chicken is cooking, the vegetables are prepared.  Two onions are peeled, cut into small pieces and added to the pot.  The ends of the onion are not used because they’re too hard and often bitter.  Then a red bell pepper is seeded, cut into small cubes and added.  The red bell pepper is followed by a green bell pepper... also seeded and chopped into small pieces.  The final bell pepper is yellow... seeded and chopped.  Everything gets shook up.  An eggplant with the skin left on is cut into cubes and added to the pot.  A zucchini is trimmed of its ends, sliced, cut into cubes and added.  Once again... there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on.  A little more salt.  A little more pepper.  Two cups worth of dry white wine go in.  Some thyme.  A few bay leaves are added, and four cloves of garlic that are crushed but not peeled. 

Ten minutes of cooking with the cover off, at which point, if you are using a whole chicken... the two breasts are removed.  The breasts are very tender and will cook faster than the other chicken parts.  So they get taken out, which prevents them from being overcooked.  Two cups’ worth of tomatoes are sliced into small pieces and added to the pot.  A little stirring and ten more minutes of cooking.  The rest of the chicken comes out.  Two tablespoons of tomato paste go in... and everything cooks for five minutes more.  The plating starts with two pieces of chicken being arranged in the center of the serving plate.  The vegetables are placed around the chicken in a circle.  A few fresh basil leaves.   A few sprigs of chervil... and it’s ready to serve.

Vincent is also going to make a salmon dish for New Year’s.  In many societies salmon is considered a luxurious ingredient, something special, and it was often used as a symbol for abundance.  Anything that stands for both opulence and plenty is an easy candidate for a dish at New Year’s Eve.

He starts with a four-ounce piece of boneless, skinless salmon which he cuts into rectangular pieces.  He cuts six pieces for each person.  A little salt and pepper goes on each; then they are held aside while the other ingredients are prepared. 

He cuts the tips off six stalks of asparagus.  Each piece ends up being about four inches long.  The asparagus is cooked in boiling water until it’s tender.  An orange sauce is made by peeling an orange and slicing it into six rounds. The juice of a second orange is poured into a saucepan and heated over a medium flame.  A pinch of salt is added.  An ounce of butter goes in.  A few grinds of pepper.

At this point the salmon is cooked.  A little butter is melted in a sauté pan and the salmon goes in for about one minute on each side.  The salmon comes out and the six rounds of oranges go into the same butter that the salmon was cooked in -- just for a minute.  Then the salmon pieces are arranged in a circle on the plate.  The slices of orange go between the salmon.  Then the asparagus tips.  The orange sauce.  Strips of chive, and an optional dab of chopped olives.   Not a bad way to end a year.

Dessert, however, is a straight shot at indulgence.  A gift for the trials of the past and a hope for the future. 

Three whole eggs go into a mixing bowl and get whisked together until they are quite fluffy and filled with air.  That’s a ten minute job by hand or about two minutes by machine.  In a second bowl, a half cup of sugar is mixed together with a half cup of flour and a cup of melted semi-sweet chocolate.  The chocolate mixture is then blended into the whipped eggs... a little of the egg mixture at first, then the rest.  You don’t want to mix so much that the air in the eggs in forced out.  The air gives the final cake its lightness. 

Half cup molds are filled about three-quarters of the way with the batter.  Then it’s into a 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for twelve minutes.

Then Vincent mixes a little heavy cream together with a little Bailey’s liqueur and covers the base of the serving plate with that blend.  A design is drawn on the cream with some melted chocolate.  Finally the baked chocolate is placed onto the plate.  It looks like a little cake, but when you cut into the center it will be soft and runny like a soufflé.  Definitely a great start to a new year.

And the traditional beverage for a New Year’s celebration is champagne.  Champagne is one of the ancient regions of France and it was the place where champagne was invented. But its first formal presentation to the nobles of France was at a party at Versailles.  One of the great champagne houses is Laurent-Perrier. It is run by the family de Nonancourt. There is Bernard and his two daughters, Alexandra and Stephanie.

Their champagnes are made in a small town in the middle of Champagne and they are made by the most traditional and authentic methods.  Bernard selects his grapes from over a thousand different growers in the region, and his job is to find just the right balance.

When the grapes arrive from the growers, they are crushed and their juices allowed to ferment, which takes about two to three weeks. The sugar in the juice changes to alcohol and carbon dioxide gas.  The gas is allowed to escape.  The wine from each area is held separately in a stainless steel tank.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   Each champagne house tries to develop a “house style” for its non-vintage champagne, and to reproduce that style each year. The job of developing the house style and reproducing it year after year is the work of the champagne blender.  The blender will use wines from over two hundred small villages, and a number of different years, in order to develop and maintain the house style.

After the blending, the wine goes into its bottle along with a small amount of yeast and a little cane sugar.  Then the bottles go into the cellars for the next three to five years.  Shortly after they arrive, the yeast in the bottle starts a second fermentation.  Gas is formed again, but this time it is trapped in the wine -- and that’s how champagne gets its effervescent bubbles.

The next step in the process is called riddling. The bottles are held more or less on their sides. Each day a riddler comes by and turns the bottle a little to one side and slightly up.  The solids that have formed in the bottle as a result of this second fermentation slowly slide down to the neck. A riddler goes through 60,000 bottles a day.

When all the sediment is in the neck, the bottle is placed into a very cold solution of brine.  The liquid in the neck freezes. The cap is taken off and the block of sediment shoots out.  A little cane sugar is added to balance any acidity, plus some more wine to top off the bottle.  Then the cork goes on, followed by the wire covering that keeps it in place. The wire is important... there’s a considerable amount of pressure in the bottle.  Three more months of resting in the cellar and it’s ready to party.

In addition to its standard white champagnes, Laurent-Perrier makes a Rose and they make it by a rather difficult method called “vatting,” as opposed to the simple method of just adding some red wine to the white wine.  Vatting requires the grape juice to rest together with the grape skins for about two days at the very beginning of the process.  The skins give a delicate color to the champagne.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   What makes one great champagne house different from another is the style that they use in making their non-vintage champagne, and it’s a style that they use year after year.  But every once in a while the grapes of a specific year are so extraordinary that they decide to make a champagne just using the grapes of that year.  And when they do, they call it a vintage champagne.  But a vintage champagne tells you more about the year than it does about the style of the house.

When everything is perfect, the wines are used to make a champagne called Grand Siecle, which means the “Great Century.” It’s a reference to the time of King Louis XIV. Louis XIV was also known as The Sun King because he brightened everything up... often by covering it with gold. The sun became his symbol. There it is on the label.  And that is why there is a very special association between the house of Laurent-Perrier and Versailles.  They were both designed for good times.

You hear the sound of a champagne bottle opening and you think... somebody’s celebrating something!  In this particular instance, I am celebrating New Year’s Eve -- and I’m celebrating it at the Four Seasons Hotel in New York City.  Clearly this is the right place for me to start my New Year.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   New Year’s is filled with superstitions, and the elaborate rituals that go along with them.  Some people feel that whatever it is you do on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day will set a pattern that will be carried on throughout the year.  They tell me that if you like your work and you want to continue in it for another year, you should carry something on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day that is a symbol of your work. 

If you wear something that’s new, it will help you get new things.  It is also recommended that you get up early in the day... don’t lend anything... and don’t cry.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   New Year’s is a time where traditionally people pay a lot of attention to money.  They try to pay off all of their bills.  But it’s important to pay off those bills before New Year’s Eve.  You don’t want to start the new year laying out money.  It might set a pattern and you’ll end up laying out money all year long.  They also tell me you should keep some money in your pocket on New Year’s Eve and on New Year’s Day. And if you have children, put some money into their pockets.  There’s also a plan that says you should hide some money outside your home on New Year’s Eve and then take it in on New Year’s Day.  Might send a signal.

In Scotland there is a belief that the first person to come into your home on New Year’s will set the tone for the next year. The person is referred to as the First Footer, and is sometimes chosen by the family in an attempt to control their own luck.  The person should be tall, dark-haired, not flat-footed and not have eyebrows that meet in the middle of his brow.  He is sometimes called “the lucky bird.” He may bring a gift, but it should be something that will be used up and it should not be taken out of the house again.

VISITOR:  A piece of coal... some salt... and a bottle of whisky.

WOMAN:  Thank you very much.  Do come in.

VISITOR:  Thank you very much.

In France, there was a time when many people would use New Year’s Day to pay a visit to the home of associates or people they wished were their associates.  Almost always the people you went out to see weren’t home because they were out trying to visit people that they wished were their associates.  The result was that almost no one was at home -- but you left your visiting card, to show you cared enough.  Eventually everyone gave up leaving the card in person and just popped it in the mail... which is how our present custom of mailing New Year’s cards got started.  Traditionally, the French gave their seasonal gift on New Year’s.  It wasn’t until the 1960’s that they started giving Christmas gifts!

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):   These days we make a great effort to differentiate New Year’s from Christmas.  Christmas is basically private, a family affair, and we pay a lot of attention to our children.  New Year’s, on the other hand, is public and designed primarily for adults.

The moment when the Old Year becomes the New is also very important.  You’re supposed to stay up and be clear-headed as the bells start to toll.  It is a turning point and you want to be able to consciously direct your fate at this very significant moment.  It’s important to be happy as the bells ring.  The whole idea of the New Year’s Eve party is just to support the idea of being happy as the New Year begins.  You want to get off on the right foot.

HOST:  Ladies and gentlemen, we’re closing in on the last minute, about to welcome in a new year!  We’ve got about ten seconds left here -- nine!

EVERYBODY:  Eight!  Seven!  Six!  Five!  Four!  Three!  Two!  One!  HAPPY NEW YEAR!

New Year’s Eve tends to be noisy. In farm communities it was important to keep your crops and animals free of evil spirits at the moment that the new year began.  The tried and true technique for keeping evil spirits on the move appears to be blowing horns and banging drums. Old farmers tell me it was very effective.  Keeping evil spirits away is clearly one of the reasons that the moment when the Old Year becomes the New is greeted with shouting, blowing whistles, tooting horns, and ringing bells. Making noise is often part of a ritual that starts something new.  It’s like banging on a door to make it open.

BURT WOLF (ON CAMERA):  New Year’s Day was often used to visit the oldest members of your family and to have dinner with them.  And it was always a mark of honor to do the visiting.  Which is why I would like to thank you for visiting with us while we took a look at the rituals of New Year’s. And I hope you will join us next time, as we travel around the world looking at the gatherings and celebrations that mark the passages of our lives.  I’m Burt Wolf.