In old Provence, the table for Christmas Eve dinner, or the gros souper, was set with three white tablecloths to represent the holy trinity and decorated with three shallow dishes of sprouted wheat seed, planted on December 4th, the Feast of Sainte Barbara. The wheat seed symbolizes the promise of a good harvest for the coming year. Bottles of sweet vin cuit, a dessert wine made with grape must at the time of the harvest a few months earlier, were on the table as well, along with pine cones and moss gathered from the forest. In the traditional ways, a meatless meal of 7 different dishes of fish, such as salt cod, and vegetables, such as cardoons, was served before going to mass. At midnight, after returning from mass, the desserts were served, sometimes along with a roast goose.
When our daughter was only 3 years old, and we had first moved to Provence to raise goats, my husband and I, along with Ethel, drove from the Upper Var to Les Baux in our small Renault 4 to attend midnight mass in the medieval fortress city. It was – and still is – famous for shepherds bringing sheep through the streets to the church, traveling to beating drums, music, and singing in a traditional celebration that dates back more than four centuries. It was cold and crowded that night, but magical. As we left, walking down the narrow streets, I could see inside the village houses where people were gathered around candlelit tables for Christmas Eve dinner and 13 desserts.
Tradition says that the 13 desserts are symbolic of the last supper when Christ dined with his 12 apostles. Almonds, walnuts, figs, and raisins are called the quatre mendiants, the four beggars because they represent the four religious orders vowed to poverty and the colors of the nuts and fruits symbolize the color of the monks’ robes: almonds for the Carmelites, walnuts for the Augustines, figs for the Franciscans, and raisins for the Dominicans. As time has passed, the religious significance of the 13 desserts has waned, but the cultural importance endures.
The composition of the 13 desserts varies from village to village, and region to region in Provence, but the essential is that at least 12 of the desserts be composed entirely of all produits de terroir, locally grown, while the 13th can be something exotic, such as a date or a tangerine. Originally, all the ingredients were the products of the self-sustaining farms and made in the farm kitchen, but as time has passed, many of the products are purchased, though still local.
This is a typical composition of the 13 desserts.
Patisserie, often a fougasse made with olive oil and orange blossom water
Prunes or dates
Green Melon (there are certain types that are winter-keepers)
In the simplest version, the 13 desserts were served unadorned. Bowls of dried fruit, plates of nougat and quince paste, and fresh fruit were set out on the dessert table. However, today homes and restaurants make creative versions with the fresh citrus or nuts turned into tarts, figs or dates stuffed with chocolate or nuts, and the dried fruits used in cakes.
LES RECETTES DE NOEL
Until only recently, this favorite holiday candy was homemade throughout the kitchens of Haute Provence, using the region’s local honey and almonds. One of the traditional thirteen desserts for Christmas Eve, it still appears on the table the night of December 24, but is now more often purchased than homemade. It is not difficult to make, as it is simply a mixture of honey and nuts. The almonds become toasted during the cooking, and are bound together with the honey, which has become chewy. The trick is to spread it into the waiting mold at just the right moment, when it is cooked neither too little nor too l long. Use light honey, such as millefleur or lavender, as the dark honeys, like chestnut, may change flavor when cooked over high heat.
½ teaspoon unsalted butter
½ pound honey (1/4 cup)
½ pound shelled, unskinned almonds, (1 ¾ cups)
Prepare a mold, such as an aluminum ice-cube tray, with the interior removed, by greasing it with the butter, then lining it with parchment paper.
In a heavy-bottomed pot, heat the honey over medium-high heat, stirring until it boils. Add all the almonds, and keep stirring. Reduce the heat to medium and continue to stir. The mixture will thicken, the almonds will cook, and the honey will change color from golden to dark caramel brown. It is essential to keep stirring in order to prevent the almonds from burning. When an inserted candy thermometer reads 250 degrees F and the color is brown, it is time to pour it into the prepared mold. Spread it evenly across the surface and top with a piece of parchment paper. Put a weight, such as a brick, on top, and let the candy cool.
When thoroughly cold, unmold the nougat, peel off the parchment, and cut into 1-inch squares. It should be firm, yet cuttable. Store in an airtight tin. The nougat will keep about 2 weeks.
Makes about 18 pieces
From the Food and Flavors of Haute Provence, by Georgeanne Brennan, Chronicle Books
Tarte Aux Noix
Walnut and Almond Tart
This tart incorporates two of the 13 desserts, almonds and walnuts, and could be served on the Provençal Christmas Eve table – or anytime. It is my version of the rich and buttery nut tarts I find in the patisseries of Provence during the winter.
1 ½ cups flour
¼ cup sugar
¼ cup butter, cut into ½ inch chunks
1 large egg
2 tablespoon butter, melted and cooled
½ cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 large eggs
½ cup Cointreau (optional)
1 inch piece of vanilla bean
1 ½ cups walnuts and almonds, coarsely chopped and lightly toasted
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees. F.
To make the pastry, stir together the flour and the sugar. Add the butter and work it in with your fingertips until the mixture becomes crumblike. Add the egg and mix it with a fork. Tightly pack the dough into a ball. Using your fingers, press the dough evenly into a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom, reaching to the top of the rim. Set Aside.
For the filling, in a bowl, combine the melted butter, brown sugar, eggs and optional Cointreau. Slit the vanilla bean and scrape the soft inner bit into the bowl. Beat until well blended. Stir in the nuts and pour the filling into the pan. Do not over fill.
Bake until the crust and the filling are golden brown, about 50 minutes. Transfer to a rack to cool. Loosen the edges of the crust with the tip of a knife, then remove the pan rim and slide the tart onto a place. Serve warm or at room temperature.
GIFT NEWS FROM LA VIE RUSTIC
How about a trio of our Sel de Fruit – fig, apricot, and French prune? Or, a ready-to-use Roulade (French-style Pancetta) DIY set – just buy a pork belly and your ready to go. The set has everything you need -no special equipment required.
And, we can include, on any of your gift purchases, one of our special letter press Joyeux Noel cards with your personal message. And, of course you can purchase a box of the cards for your own use, too.
Can’t Decide? We make it easy~
La Vie Rustic now has e-gift certificates in $15, $25, and $50.
Coming soon: Hand-made Provencal baking dishes modeled on one from my collection – rectangular, with thick handles in shades of ocre and indigo. Elaine Corn, ceramist, culinary journalists, and James Beard- award winning author is making them just for La Vie Rustic. I can hardly wait for these. Plus, she’s also making, just for La Vie Rustic, oval baking dishes in shimmering soft blues. They are the perfect size for gratins and they go directly to the table.