Christmas is a time for traditions and while France probably doesn’t spring to mind immediately when thinking about the festive period and its traditions, there are plenty here. And even more so, plenty in the south which surprised me when I first moved to the Alpes-Maritimes. I don’t know why it should be so surprising, this is after all a Catholic country but I associate Christmas traditions much more with northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, UK and Germany.
Let me tell you about one of the main ones which I discovered thanks to the local Christmas Fair, Noëls du Monde, a few years ago. Provence celebrates Christmas with a special meal on the 24th of December known as “le gros souper” or the big supper. It is a meatless meal, considered a “repas maigre” (light meal) often beginning with a garlic soup, followed by a simple fish dish. But the focus is the dessert, or all thirteen desserts to be precise.
The table is set with three tablecloths and three candlesticks to represent the Holy Trinity and most of the dishes are steeped in symbolism. Numbers have become important, thirteen being representative of the Last Supper with Jesus Christ and his 12 Apostles. But surprisingly it was not always the way with the first reference to thirteen specifically seen around about a hundred years ago. The food itself, however, dates back to Pagan times and has taken on Christian symbolism over time. Each dish is innately Provencal; simple, unadorned, fresh and seasonal and you’ll see that each “dish” is for the most part in fact really just one type of fruit or nut.
The first courses of the gros souper are eaten before Midnight Mass but the celebratory 13 desserts come afterwards, late at night. They begin with walnuts, almonds, raisins and dried figs representing the four monastic orders Augustine, Carmelite, Dominican and Franciscan respectively. Dates, symbolising Christ, are important and are the only food not grown in Provence. As for the eight other dishes you’ll find regional differences but most will include a selection of dried and fresh fruit: apples, pears, oranges, clementines and grapes. Two types of nougat are served, White Nougat symbolising good and Black Nougat symbolising evil, and there is usually some candied fruit too such as quince jelly. A delicious light flatbread called pompe à l’huile (also called Fougasse) made of olive oil and orange flower water is eaten as an accompaniment and must be torn not sliced, otherwise financial ruin is predicted for the coming year. Other specialities may include marrons glacés, calissons, bugnes and oreillettes but these are all recent additions being too expensive for the ordinary people among whom this tradition began.
The meal is accompanied by vin cuit (fortified wine), all the dishes are served at the same time and everyone must try at least a little of everything on offer. Finally the crumbs are left on the table which is not cleared away for three days in order to feed the souls of deceased family members.
So, what do you think? The idea of thirteen desserts sounds enormous but if you stick to the traditional ingredients it is in fact a reasonably light and healthy option during what is usually a time of rich over-indulgence. Bon appétit et bonnes fêtes!