In case you hadn’t noticed, France is a diverse world of culinary traditions and glamorously thin people.
Ok, maybe not everyone is glamorously thin, but the part about the food is true. It’s the birthplace of haute cuisine and constant inspiration to chefs (and amateurs) everywhere. So it’s no surprise that the region of Provence has it’s own special Christmas tradition. It’s called Le Gros Souper et Les Treizes Dessert de Noêl, or (for those of us who don’t speak French, like me) The Great Supper and the Thirteen Desserts.
This double tradition originated in Marseille at the beginning of the 19th century. Both the supper and desserts are rife with religious symbolism that have to do with both the number of dishes served as well as the types of foods and decorations.
If we’re being honest, the really important part of that combination is the desserts. The Great Supper isn’t all that great. It’s actually quite small and simple. The meal traditionally consists of seven dishes that symbolize the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Some have said they may also symbolize the seven wounds of Christ. It also includes 13 bread rolls, which represent Christ and the 12 Apostles. There is debate about whether or not it’s eaten before or after midnight mass. It appears to be a matter of preference.
For those that have their meals post-mass, they often enjoy a sauvo-christian before they begin eating. It literally means “save Christian” and is meant to be a sort of pick-me-up so everyone is ready to eat. It includes muscat grape seeds macerated in brandy, cherry ratafia, or charthagèe, a brandy based wine. The drink is usually brewed in peoples cellars.
The Great Supper considered a “lean” meal, meaning no meat is served. It consists of traditional vegetable and fish dishes and is served in the form of a buffet. There’s no set menu since it varies from département to département (or town to town) but most sources agree that it may include some of these items:
- Chard stalks and celery
- Spinach and cod
- Molette (French wine grape)
- Garlic soup
- Fish (salt cod, anchovies)
- Anchoïade (anchovy paste)
- Savory pies
An example of a Great Supper meal would be cabbage soup, celery with anchovy, snails, vegetable soup, spinach gratin of cod, and cardoons. Occasionally the Supper is served with seven different wines as well.
Not only is the number of dishes significant, but the table setting is important as well. The table is set with three table cloths of decreasing size, three candles, and three saucers of Saint Barbe’s wheat (sprouted wheat germs planted on Saint Barbe’s Day) which all symbolize the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Table remains set overnight so souls of the dead can come feast as well.
Now we come to the fun part – the Thirteen Desserts. Like the Great Supper, all the desserts are served at once, buffet style. They can also vary from village to village, but there are some constants. Obviously the thirteen again stands for Christ and his 12 Apostles.
First and foremost are les quatre mendiants, meaning “the four beggars.” They are dried fruits and nuts that represent the four orders of friars. They are:
- Raisins (the Dominicans)
- Dried Figs (the Franciscans)
- Hazelnuts (the Augustinians)
- Almonds (Carmelites)
These items are representative of the mendiants because the colors of the food resemble the habits of the monks.
The other constant dessert is the pompe à l’huile, which literally means “oil pump.” The name pompe is used in Aix en Provence and Marseille, while the name fougasse is used in Arles and Haute Provence. Fougasse means “flat bread.”
The pompe is a light textured cake or brioche made from yeast and egg dough, sweetened with sugar and flavored with grated orange and lemon zest and sprinkled with orange flower water. The bread is never sliced, but broken by hand the way Christ broke bread with the apostles. Cutting it is bad luck for the coming year and could cause bankruptcy. The pieces of bread are dipped in vin cuit (cooked wine), which actually ends up being a sweet local wine such as Rasteau or Beaumes-de-Venise. It is representative of the fortified wine of Jesus.
Then there is the nougat. Black nougat, a hard and brittle candy, is made with caramelized honey cooked with almonds and symbolizes evil or the black penitents.
White nougat is soft and creamy and made with sugar, eggs, pistachios, pine nuts, honey, and almonds and symbolizes good and the white penitents.
The desserts then include a variety of in season fresh and dried fruits, nuts, and small confections or pastries.
Fresh and dried fruits and nuts:
- Oranges (fresh oranges represent wealth in the coming year, as well as being a traditional Christmas gift)
- Pears (Beurre Clairgeau, Beurre d’Anjou, Beurre Easter, Josephine de Malines varities)
- Grapes (regular sized or champagne grapes)
- Dates – Dates are a symbol of Christ, who came from the orient. Or, how about this fun story: When the Virgin Mary fled to Egypt to keep baby Jesus safe from King Herod, she tried to hide the child. The date palm in front of her parted its leaves. Mary smiled and the baby said “oh!” The round sound and shape of his mouth formed the pit of the fruit. Ever since, the seed of life comes from the date.
- Winter melon, also called verdaù
Confections and pastries:
- Calissons d’Aix – These are basically marzipan shaped into petals or boats and covered with royal icing. The simpler form was first eaten in the 15th century.
- Fruit tarts
- Candied citron – candied skins of citrus fruits, cooked in sugar syrup and dried
- Biscotins from Aix
- Quince paste and jellies – a thick gel made from quince nectar, solidified, and rolled in sugar
- Quince cheese and crystalized fruit (in the Apt or Capentras regions)
- Oreillettes (light, thin waffles)
- Jams made during the grape harvest
- Cachat piquant (left-over goat cheese placed in a jar of flavored olive oil)
- Croquants aux amandes (caramelized sugar and almonds)
- Bugnes (sweet fritters)
- Oursins, or glacé chestnuts
- Other local sweets
So you can see how much room there is for improvisation. Despite the fact that the Thirteen Desserts have their staples, each time it can be personalized to fit the family serving it. Recently, newer traditions, such as the Bûche de Noël, are being included in the Thirteen Desserts.
In 2010, the Chamber of Agriculture of Bouches-du-Rhône held their 12th annual Market of the 13 Desserts in Aix-en-Provence. Their dessert menu looked like this:
- Pompe a l’huile
- Les quatre mendicants
- Black and white nougat
- Fresh grapes
- Mandarin oranges
- Sweets: chocolate, candied fruit, calissons, etc
- Jellied quince or other fruit
- Bugnes or merveilles or oreillettes: doughnuts flavored with orange flower water and waffles
Every person attending the Supper must eat a little of each dessert to have good luck for the rest of the year and in some areas, children are not allowed to eat until they have named each of the desserts. The dishes are left out on the table for 3 days afterwards, until December 27th.
During my research I ran across a book by a man named Thomas Allibone Janvier, a man from Philadelphia of Provençal. He had the good fortune to attend a Great Supper and Thirteen Desserts in Provence in 1897. His account of it was originally published in volume 53 of The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, but was later published in 1902 in a book titled The Christmas Kalends of Provence and Some Other Provençal Festivals. Here’s what his experience was…
Janvier found that, because the Great Supper had to be lean, his host and other housewives had to do some creative thinking when it came to the meal. They spent days on end contemplating what to make and how to make it interesting for their guests. He noted that, while dishes were simple, they were still made luxurious since they used olive oil in place of animal fat for cooking.
Janvier’s meal began with raïto, a ragu made of fried fish served in a sauce of wine and capers. The dish was usually made from dry codfish because codfish was an important fish in Provence.
The second course was also fish that he says can be served in any way. He ate a perch-like fish. Janvier says the third course is sometimes fish, but is more often than not snails cooked in a rich, brown garlic sauce. The fourth course was a Provençal dish called carde, which is a giant thistle that grows to be 5 to 6 feet tall. The edible part is the stem, which is blanched like celery (it also resembles celery) and cooked with a garlic white sauce. He observed that the people of Provence sure do like their garlic.
He didn’t fully cover the desserts, but it is safe to assume that he had both the mendiants and the pompe. The nougat was extremely important and the table looked like a confectioners shop and was covered with all manner of rich cakes and dried and fresh fruits and nuts. He focused on two fruits in particular: grapes and winter melon.
Janvier supposed the grapes were connected to some Bacchic custom that had to do with the winter solstice and got carried over to the Great Supper. Provençal grapes are delicate and whither quickly, so they have to be carefully preserved until Christmas. Because of their fragility, eating them became more of a ritual than an enjoyment.
Janvier then goes on to describe winter melons. They are a species of cantaloupe, but they are green in color and firmer. They are sowed later in the season and harvested when they just turn green. The melons are stored on beds of straw in cool, dark, well-aired rooms and would keep until the end of January. However, they are kept mainly for Christmas and rarely last past the celebration.
Winter melons are American in origin and were introduced to Provence by a French naturalist named Dr. Antoine Novel. He wrote a letter to a friend in Peirsex in Aix on March 24th, 1625, along with a box containing 10 sorts of seeds from flowers and fruits from the West Indies, including seeds of winter melons, as well as 7 whole winter melons. He does not say specifically in his letters where he sent them from, but they may have come from anywhere between the Orinoco in South America and Florida.
During supper they only drank small wine diluted with water, but the dessert course was accompanied by several different wines of older vintage that have been left to ripen for a special occasion such as Christmas. They were all Provençal wines, locally made. They had:
- Tavel – rich and strong
- Ledenon – delicate
- Frontignan – heavy
- Mouscat de Maroussa – sweet
- Clairette – a homemade champagne that was similar to cider and very bubbly
- Châteauneuf-du-Pape – rich, smooth, delicate, with an aromatic aftertaste brought by bees to the vine blossoms from wild thyme blossoms. This was the wine that was apparently drunk by the Popes of Avignon. Forty years previously, it was the drink of choice of the young Felibrien poets; Mistral, Roumanille, Aubanel, Mathieu, etc. Around Janvier’s time, the quality of the vines and grapes had begun to decrease and the wine was not as good at it had previously been. Only in rich, old cellars were there a bin or two of the vintage wine.
And that’s your first hand account of Le Gros Souper et Les Treizes Dessert de Noêl.
See ya tomorrow.
Keep eating and asking, my friends.
-Bowler, G. Q. The World Encyclopedia of Christmas. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000. 222. Print.
-“The Thirteen Christmas Desserts.” Accueil / Www.culturecommunication.gouv.fr / Ministère – Ministère De La Culture. Web. 03 Dec. 2011. <http://www.culture.gouv.fr/culture/noel/angl/treize.htm>.