Provençal traditions to whet your appetite!
At Christmas time in Provence, everyone shares in the wonderful tradition of the "gros souper" or "big supper", a substantial meat-free meal eaten on 24 December, which ends with the famous 13 desserts.
The "gros souper"
Eaten just after the "cacho-fio" ceremony, the "big supper" may be a simple meal but it requires a theatrical and elaborate table setting.
The table is laid with three tablecloths, on top of which three candles recalling the Trinity are placed symmetrically; the table is also ornamented with small pieces of holly with red berries, and occasionally with Roses of Jericho and wheat planted on the feast day of Saint-Barbe (4 December). The "pain calendal" or Christmas loaf is placed in the centre.
The table is the key element of the scene – as such it occupies the centre and is covered with ornaments, all of which have their own symbolic meaning.
The "three white tablecloths" covering the table and the three candles placed on it evoke the Trinity. The thirteen breads that accompany the meal recall the Final Supper with the twelve apostles and Jesus. The same significance is also attached to the thirteen desserts which are still part of Christmas festivities today, and which can be placed on the table along with the wine at the beginning of the meal as a symbol of abundance.
As Christmas is a festival of Charity, one place, known as the "Pauper's Place", is set aside for an unknown guest. It was said that this place was set aside for the soul of the family's dead.
Historically, seven meat-free dishes were prepared in memory of "Christ's seven wounds". As fasting and abstinence from meat was expected on Christmas Eve, the meal is meat-free but copious. This abundance is an omen for the future and for future prosperity. It seems that every village has one or two traditional dishes of its own, which explains the huge diversity of Christmas meals – there is no such thing as a "typical menu", merely constant themes depending on the region. In general, the Christmas meal adapts to the landscape and local climate, with differences, for example, between the Provençal coast and the region's inland areas.
Understandably, fresh fish (eel, tuna, sea bream, cod, etc) is more common in towns and villages along the Mediterranean coast, whereas in inland Provence vegetables are much more prevalent on the menu (spinach gratin in Apt with garlic and parsley, chard and cardoons, raw celeriac seasoned with anchovy sauce, blanched leeks, courgette gratin, etc…) In the mountains of Provence, the traditional dish is "crouzets", a type of pasta cut into strips, also known as "crouiches" or "crouizes".
The abundance of dishes at Christmas is in sharp contrast with daily life; however, these dishes are simple in their preparation.
The 13 desserts
A tradition which first appeared in 1920, the 13 desserts are based around Provençal produce and are eaten after Midnight Mass.
Today, this custom is the most recognised and respected tradition during the Christmas festivities. Depending on the region and the family, everyone adds their own personal touch. However, certain aspects remain an essential part of the tradition:
Gibacié: a speciality from Marseille, which is known as "fougasse" in inland Provence and "pompe à huile" along the coast. Gibacié is a flour-based brioche made with olive oil and orange blossom, which is eaten on Christmas Eve and at Epiphany.
White and black nougat: these two types of nougat are made from honey, almonds and sugar. To obtain a white and creamy nougat, you add egg whites to these three basis ingredients, with each ingredient cooked separately. Black nougat should be brown in colour and with a crunchy texture.
The four beggars: these symbolise the 4 main mendicant orders (Carmelites, Dominicans, Franciscans and Augustinians), and refer to the colour of the habits worn by their monks. Hazelnuts represent the Carmelites; almonds, the Dominicans; figs, the Franciscans; and raisins, the Augustinians.
Fruits and sweetmeats can be added as required: apples, pears, grapes, oranges, winter melons, mandarins, plums, dates, quince jam or paste, calissons (almond sweets), crystallised fruits, prunes, "panade" (a soup made of bread boiled in water or milk), "pompe à huile", etc.
The specialities of each village, such as tarts from Haute Provence, "panade à Sainte Cécile" (apple tart), and "oreillettes" (a type of fritter) from the mountains of Provence, or biscuits made from pine kernels along the coast, can also be added alongside traditional dishes.
Wine is also an important part of the Christmas meal. Three types are traditionally served: matured wine from family vineyards, "vin clair" (or "clear wine"), and "vin cuit" (literally "cooked wine"). At the end of the meal, home-made "ratafia" (a liqueur obtained from the maceration of fruits, flowers and the stems of plants) is also offered.
Christmas is and will always remain a unique festival in Provence, evoking as it does the traditions of the past – as such it is an unforgettable experience which provides a valuable insight into the heart of the Provençal people.