13 Reasons to Celebrate a Provençal Christmas

December 23, 2014

The 13 Desserts via SharonSantoni.com
The 13 Desserts [SharonSantoni.com]

Given its long history and favorable climate, Provence, it should come as no surprise, has rich Christmas culinary traditions.

And as with most long-established traditions, interpretations vary by area, town and village – even between families.

When I was a child in Marseille, we would have our souper (dinner) at Tantine Nini’s, my great aunt Virginie. Around the table sat my parents and me, Nini’s family, my two grandmothers, and Tantine Riri, another great aunt. As is customary in Provence, Nini would always leave an extra place setting should a poor person come knocking asking for food and shelter.

Typically we ate three meals: le petit (small) souper, le grand (big) souper and the highlight for any child, the “13 desserts.”

Le petit souper

The petit souper was served on Christmas Eve before Midnight Mass. As the name suggests, the petit souper is a light meal, with little fat and no meat. Although light, it was still substantial, comprising seven courses said to represent the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. At Tantine Nini’s, it usually included anchoïde (a dip of anchovies, garlic and olive oil, served with celery), cod fish with leeks, a fish soup, snails, and a platter of seafood that could include lobster, sea urchins, mussels, oysters, sea violets and/or sea snails. Rounding out the meal were steamed vegetables – potatoes, carrots, fennel, onions – served with aïoli, a classic Provençal sauce made from olive oil, garlic, lemon and seasonings.

Le gros souper

In Provence, the gros souper is the main Christmas feast, usually served on Christmas Eve. But because Tantine Nini would make so much food, our gros souper became a drawn-out Christmas Day affair. We started with lunch at mid day, ate and talked until 4 in the afternoon, then went for a long walk. Dinner began at around 7:30 and went until 10. In line with Provençal tradition, our table was dressed with three white tablecloths, topped with three candles and three saucers, to represent the Holy Trinity.

Tantine Nini served either a  pieds-paquets (a Marseille culinary specialty of stewed sheep’s offal and feet), tripe or roast beef, accompanied by wine. The emphasis was not on the preparation, but on taking the time to savour the moment: the aromas, the flavours and the telling of stories around the table. 

Les 13 desserts

After Mass on the 24th and after the meals on the 25th, Tantine Nini served the 13 desserts. This tradition only dates back to the early 20th century and represents the 13 participants of the Last Supper. And what a delicious tradition it is! 

The 13 desserts consist of a mix of dried fruits, candied fruits, fresh fruits, candies, nougats and pompe a l’huile (a ceremonial bread made with olive oil). More recently, the Yule log has also become part of the local tradition. Given that most of the 13 desserts are dried and non-perishable, they always remained on Tantine Nini’s table in considerable quantities throughout the holiday season, there for the taking by whomever would stop by to visit.

Calissons are also served at Christmas time in Provence
Calissons [On Dine Chez Nanou]

Tantine Nini stayed fairly close to the typical 13 desserts for Christmas Eve. But following the gros souper on the 25th and for the remainder of the holiday season, the offerings varied. I remember eating roasted chestnuts, various sorbets, papillotes (bonbons or chocolates wrapped in colourful, shiny paper), and calissons (almond paste candies made with crystallized melon, candied orange peel, orange flower water and syrup -- a specialty from the town of Aix-en-Provence). 

The 13 desserts of the Provençal Christmas table

Les quatre mendiants (the four beggars): these are dried fruits, each said to represent one of the four Catholic orders of friars: raisins for the Dominicans; dried figs for the Franciscans; nuts for the Augustines; and almonds for the Carmelites. Walnuts, dates and/or prunes also find their way to the table.

Three more desserts are seasonal fruits, usually an assortment of oranges, apples, pears, grapes or winter melons.

Two kinds of nougat are served, white and black, representing good and evil. No surprise then that the black nougat is the more intensely flavoured – and more desired by connoisseurs. Black nougat is a reduction, made only from honey and almonds. White nougat is made by cooking honey, whisked egg whites and sugar together for several hours, then adding hazelnuts, pine nuts and/or pistachios. 

Pompe à huile (à la lavande) from jujube-en-cuisine.fr
 Pompe à l’huile (à la lavande) [Jujube en cuisine]

The pièce de résistance of the 13 desserts is the pompe à l’huile (a bread made from flour, olive oil and orange flower water, sweetened with brown sugar). The pompe is never cut; rather, it is torn to symbolize the breaking of bread. The bread is traditionally served with a local sweet wine.

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