An enduring tradition of Provence: the Christmas’ Thirteen Desserts – Meanderings through France
Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Among all the different customs to be followed in Provence during the festive season, celebrating Christmas with at least 13 desserts probably is the most delectable one. Locally called calenos many families prepare them: no less than 13 sweets or even more fill the table, symbolizing abundance, joy and shared happiness during Christmas Eve.
On December the 24th families gather for the “Gros Souper”, the Big Dinner. It’s a rich and sumptuous meal without meat but with many kinds of food hardly eaten outside Provence: sage and garlic soup, fish dishes made with shad or cod and vegetable dishes such as spinach with snails… Don’t stop reading, it’s not very tempting even to French people who were not born in the area, but believe me it will get better later!
Three tablecloths are put on the table one on top of the other: the first one is used for Christmas Eve, the second one for lunch on December the 25th, another rich meal with meat and the last one for the following dinner made with the leftovers… Would you like some more spinach and snails?
Back home after the midnight mass it’s finally time for the 13 desserts. They are traditionally made with local produce except for the dates that are served to remind us of the Holy Family’s travel to Egypt where it is said that Virgin Mary, Saint Joseph and Jesus ate dates for the first time. The main dessert is funnily called “pompe à huile,” (oil pump) and is made with flour, baker’s yeast, sugar, eggs, olive oil, orange and lemon peel. As Jesus broke the bread at the Last Supper people don’t cut the pompe à huile with a knife but break it into pieces before eating it with several kinds of jams, mainly quince jam.
Next come on the table foods symbolizing Christianity. Twelve small bread loafs and a bigger one, are a reminder of the Last Supper with the twelve apostles and Jesus. There are four different kinds of dried fruits representing the four Mendicant Orders: each fruit must be the colour of one of the four monks’ robes. Walnuts or hazelnuts are the same colour as the Augustinians’, dried figs are for the Franciscans’, almonds for the Carmelites’ and raisins’ for the Dominicans’. These dry fruits are incorporated into mouth watering black chocolate discs called “mendiants” (mendicants). Finally the Magi take the form of black and white nougats made with honey, pistachios, almonds and pine nuts.
To complete the thirteen desserts each Provencal town and every family has its own way. There must be fresh fruits coming from the area and carefully saved since harvest: apples, pears, oranges and even melons and bunches of grapes whose stalk has been coated with wax to keep the juice inside the fruits. People cook cakes, jams and fruit tarts and add candied fruits, Calissons from Aix-en–Provence, prunes, cookies, chestnuts cooked in wine… It’s an endless list and there often are much more than 13 different desserts, turning the table into a colourful and tempting buffet for both children and adults.
To make this list complete I must tell you about another “weird” thing people from Provence are able to eat. Many families put cheeses on their Christmas’ table and among these you sometimes will have the “chance” to taste cachat. Made in the Mount Ventoux area this cheese is often described as “formidable”! It’s a very strong cheese with a hot taste made with fresh cheese kneaded with salt, pepper, garlic, onions, brandy, white wine, vegetable broth… Then it is left in a clay pot for several weeks to ferment. For fun people say that you need a whole bread loaf to eat a crumb of cachat. This unique experience is for thrill seekers only!
Once sated all the guests go to bed to digest all this food leaving all the leftovers on the table for the ghosts roaming around the house… They will be removed from the table with the first tablecloth on the following morning.
Nostalgia of bygone days is growing stronger in France and the Thirteen Dessert tradition is more alive than ever in beautiful Provence. It’s a great and “sweet” time to share with your family in the heart of winter.
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos X and photos © Frederic de Poligny