It's a spread that dazzles. There are toothache-sweet maple bars and heady rum balls, brownies and blondies, crisp orange rind-flavored cookies and thick, gooey oatmeal chews. These gorgeous holiday cookies are as essential a component of a French-Canadian Christmas as they are of celebrations south of the border. Their proud bakers are all upstanding members of the St-Georges chapter of the Cercle des Fermieres, a Quebec-wide farm women's organization; and today they have convened in their bright, high-ceilinged meeting hall, adjacent to the town's silver-topped cathedral, to honor the group's new cookbook, 80 Recettes de Biscuits, an orderly, spiral-bound ode to the glories of sugar.
Founded in 1915, at the onset of World War I, the Cercle des Fermieres dedicates itself to keeping fast-fading domestic arts—such as weaving, quilting, canning, and baking—alive and prospering, providing a powerful link to the past for the women of rural Quebec. While similar clubs all over North America have gone the way of politeness and white gloves, eclipsed by modern desires for all that is speedy and efficient and new, this group thrives: the St-Georges contingent, presided over by Marie Stella Morin, currently has more than 212 members; the nearby Ste-Marie group, overseen by Noella Vachon, has 110. As a whole, the Cercle des Fermieres boasts upwards of 40,000 members. "We are devoted to tradition like no other group I know," says Vachon, who is a masterful weaver as well as a superb baker.
The ladies present this afternoon, dressed in their finest Noel sparkle, have been up since dawn, sifting, mixing, whipping, rolling, pressing, sprinkling, and baking some of the prettiest cookies imaginable. Now all that's left to do is admire the lovely fruits of their labors and munch the chilly afternoon away. In between bites, the creator of the beautiful chocolate-vanilla spirals whispers to a friend, "When I bake cookies, something wonderful happens: I have a new outlook on life." Her friend nods vigorously in agreement.