Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The thirteen desserts of Provence

This is pretty cool. An old Christmas tradition in the south of France is to serve thirteen desserts at the end of the gros souper, or reveillon- the Christmas Eve feast. Of course, what with the decline of religious belief and tradition in general, just like everywhere, hardly anyone does the thirteen desserts any more. But in my opinion, its a tradition that deserves a respectful salute every so often: the thirteen desserts are easy to reproduce and come with a rich and luxurious set of old-fashioned symbols and values that are sort of hard to find these days.

One traditional menu I found for the gros souper itself consists of:

Snails (quickly braised)

Fried cod

Olive confit or paste

Fresh silverbeet

Celery salad

Oil bread

Elsewhere in Provence, depending on location and local customs, the Christmas feast might also contain:


Blanched silverbeet

Olive oil and celery salad

Cod with caper garnish

Spinach or cauliflower gratin

Hard-boiled eggs

Fresh seafood ravioli

Vegetable quiche or light tart

In general, the Christmas feast in the south of France varies, but dishes are usually vegetable-based and contain fairly light and simple flavours.

In the Parisian region, people often have oysters at Christmas, and some sort of roast fowl (goose, duck or chicken) which is more familiar to Western Christmas traditions.

It's also a tradition to leave one spare place at the Christmas table: this is in case a beggar or poor person comes to the door to share the feast.

Now to the thirteen desserts.

The list is not prescriptive: items vary depending on the region, availability and personal preference. What is important though is that there be 13 dishes (Christ and his apostles) and that they be all placed on the table at the same time. They are also accompanied by vin cuit: a type of mulled wine, heated with aromatics and fruits to create a sweet syrupy drink.

  1. Le pompe a l'huile: sweet brioche-like bread made with olive oil. This bread must never be cut with a knife, but must be broken by hand, as Jesus did at the Last Supper.

  2. Walnuts or hazelnuts, representing the Augustinian Catholic order

  3. Dried figs for the Franciscans

  4. Almonds for the Carmelites

  5. Raisins for the Dominicans (these four represented the various orders through the colour of their robes or habits. These were the orders that took vows of poverty.)

  6. Apples

  7. Pears

  8. Preserved green melon

  9. White nougat

  10. Black nougat (the nougats represent the penitents)

  11. Quinces

  12. Grapes

  13. Dates (the dried fruit and nuts also represented the Eastern origins of the Three Wise Men)

Oranges and clementines are also often part of the dessert.

The list is heavily symbolic. It would be wonderful to create our own Australian thirteen desserts of Christmas, in a similar fashion. There could be pineapple, mango, some form of meringue (probably pavlova), perhaps lamington, cherries, lychees to represent our Eastern neighbours.... what else?

1 comment:

Kim said...

Mmmm. The 13 Australian Christmas Desserts sounds like it's of to a good start! My family really likes pompe à l'huile for breakfast - you can find a recipe on my site here: French Chrsitmas Traditions. Joyeux Noel!