French cuisine – it’s one of the things that make France great. In fact, gastronomy is such a critical part of the heritage of France that it has been recognised with a UNESCO “World intangible Heritage” status. Getting together with family and friends over a meal is a popular activity in France and as you’d expect – at Christmas, it’s taken to a whole new level.
On Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve it is common all over France to have a long dinner called a réveillon. The word comes from the French word reveiller (to wake) because it usually goes on way past midnight so you have to stay awake until the early hours of the next morning!
In Provence, the traditional Christmas Eve meal is known as le gros souper (the big supper) and it ends with a ritual number of 13 desserts (treize desserts).
Yup, 13 desserts – but not, I have to add, 13 cakes, in case you’re wondering how on earth anyone can cope with such a thing.
History of the 13 desserts of Provence
The tradition of Les Treize Desserts de Noël goes back several centuries and it’s said that the roots of this custom lie in religion and represent Jesus and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper. The ingredients of the 13 desserts varies from village to village, and even from home to home. But it always includes dishes of nuts, fruit and sweets plus an orange flavoured cake. The desserts are spread out on a table in dishes at the same time, and everyone is invited to take a little from each dish.
It’s a tradition to lay the desserts out on Christmas Eve and leave them there for three days.
The thirteen desserts of Provence
Though everyone’s table might have a variation of dishes, you’ll pretty much always find “les quartre mendiants”, the four beggars, which represent monastic communities: walnuts or hazelnuts symbolizing the order of St Augustin, almonds for the Carmelites, raisins for the Dominicans, and dry figs for the Franciscans.
There’s usually fresh fruit: such as apples, pears, oranges, melon, grapes and tangerines. Plus crystallised fruits like kiwi and pineapple. Traditionally, locally produced fruits are preserved after the autumn harvests in basements and attics. The best cyrstallised fruit comes from the town of Apt.
Pompe a l’huile, a sweet flatbread flavoured with orange, takes centre stage.
Sweets and pastries: gingerbread, biscuits, candied fruit, cake, almond-paste pastries, spiced bread, waffles, brioche, yule log and kugelhopf. There is a great choice of sweets that can be included. Calissons d’aix are often included, a sweet almond biscuit that was first created, it’s said, in 1454 in Aix-en-Provence.
Finally there are always two kinds of nougat – dark nougat and white nougat which represent good and evil.
The nougat noir au miel is made with honey and almonds and is a hard candy.
The nougat blanc is soft and made with sugar, eggs, pistachios, honey, and almonds