Medieval France, Midwinter. Households head out to find a log – often from a fruit tree – that is small enough to fit in the hearth, but big enough to burn for three days without going out. This is the Yule log in its original form – but what was its purpose? And how did it spawn the bûche de Noël, Christmas dessert par excellence? Read on to find out!
Although the exact origin is unclear, the custom of the Yule log probably came from Germanic paganism. Yule events across Europe took the form of feasting and drinking, and the Yule log is believed to symbolise both the cleansing of the past year, and as a ritual to bring a good harvest in the year to come. The log was lit on Christmas Eve and should burn for at least three days – but ideally until the New Year. In France, it may have developed from the custom where peasants brought a log to their lord in the Winter. The custom differed from province to province – in Brittany you would say prayers over the log as it was lit, in Burgundy you would hide gifts behind it. The custom in Provence is known as the cacho fio (blessing of the log) and is still practised to this day – the log is paraded around the house three times by the grandfather of the family, before being blessed with wine.
Over time, hearths got too small to accommodate a Yule log, but still big enough to bake a cake, and the tradition of the edible Yule log began. This could have been as early as the 17th century – many of the requisite ingredients and baking techniques were around – but it was properly popularised in the 19th century by Parisian bakers and by 1945, the term bûche de Noël referred exclusively to the cake.
Nowadays you can find them everywhere, and no Christmas dinner table in France, Quebec, or Belgium would be complete without one. The classic bûche de Noël is a light genoise sponge, filled with chocolate buttercream, then rolled into a log shape and iced, with the end trimmed off and attached to the top or side, to act as another branch. These days, however, anything goes – and examples stretch from different types of sponge, to different fillings, icings, and flavourings.
Our own version is a chocolate sponge, filled with crème anglaise and topped with smooth chocolate. Why not book a table with us this Christmas and try this classic French dessert for yourself?