Christmas in Provence: History and Recipes!

In Provence our Christmas season begins on 4th December, the day of St. Barbe (yes, we do have a Saint named Barbe, nothing to do with a beard though), with the ritual sowing of wheat and lentils on shallowdishes to provide some fresh green shoots which will decorate the Christmas table as well as the elaborate crèche nesting near or under the Christmas tree (see story below). Our Christmas festivities last for three whole days (and nights), from 24th to 26th December so we get to eat & drink ourselves silly. Pic below is of 13 desserts: tradition demands that we must sacrifice ourselves to the altar of sugar (mind you, for adults, digestion is helped with quick shots of Marc or Cognac).

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For the people of Provence, Christmas is a series of traditional customs beginning with the “gros souper,” the large supper served on Christmas Eve before Midnight Mass. The table around which the family gathers is decorated according to custom with sprigs of myrtle, wheat and lentil sprouts (as mentioned above, which are symbols of prosperity).

First, a little history on our language: Provençal is a dialect of southern Occitanian, but was often used to mean the southern Oc language in general. It appeared in Latin texts in the 11th century and was common in courtly literature in the 12th century. Provençal was spread by the troubadours who traveled across this land with stories set to music and poetry. The word “troubadour” itself comes from the Provençal “trobar”, meaning “to find”. In the Middle Ages, Provençal and Latin were the only two written administrative languages.

Provençal was the language spoken at the pontifical court of Avignon, and was the language Dante nearly wrote his Divine Comedy in. Alas for us, the 1539 Edict of Villers-Cotterêts dealt the death knell to Provençal as an official language though my great grandparents (and their contemporaries) spoke it fluently. The decree was that those pesky Parisians (from Ile de France) who had their own dialect would be used for all French administration. Provençal literature lived on, however, until the 19th century, with stories, legends, theater and poetry, and Provençal dictionaries are still published to this day. At the end of the 19th century, Frédéric Mistral led a revival of the Provençal language and went on to receive the Nobel Prize of Literature. As a kid growing up in the South of France most of my family spoke it during receptions, weddings, funerals etc and I can still understand it though lost most of it during my peripatetic life.

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On Christmas Eve, we are made to sit around the Crèche de Noël (from French Wiki!) and listen intently to La Pastorale des Santons de Provence, an hilarious account of the nativity if it had happened in our neck of the woods instead of Bethlehem. The link of the complete Pastorale is at the bottom of this piece, you don’t need to understand French to grasp the sentiment, though a glass or two of eggnog or mulled wine will help (see recipe below).

Christmas cannot be imagined in Provence without the crèche and all its small santons (the little saints). So, on December 4th, everyone opens the boxes where the santons have been “asleep”. The crèche is set up and, for two months, its presence will illuminate a corner of the house, near the decorated tree. The pic above is actually 2 miles from my home town, where they make these figurines in Frejus. Pic below is of a typical crèche.

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The Crèche: the first crèche appeared in Italy. The legend is that one night in 1223, in Greccio in the Abbruzzes, Saint Francis of Assisi had a living Christmas scene set up in a stable. There were an ox and a donkey and Saint Francis invited everyone to celebrate the Nativity. This celebration was followed by others all over Italy, and in the late 13th century, the first crèches appeared in the churches of Provence. And that’s when we come in. Our crèche is not your typical ass & donkey business with the little one by the manger. No, we have created a whole new storyline. In our crèche, we find the population of a small Provençal village including the idiot of that village, the baker, the miller, the butcher etc… in which a story of ill-fated lovers is merged with the Holy Family (Biblical personages), who are eventually joined on Twelfth Night by the Three Wise Men, hardly a Shakespearean plot but fun! The entirety of this small world of painted clay figures or dressed in bright colors will stay in the house for forty days before they go back into their boxes until the next year.

Where are the recipes you may ask… Well, in the olden days only salted cod was served with stewed vegetables on the eve of Christmas, no meat was ever cooked. Nowadays almost everyone either goes to a restaurant for a “reveillon” which lasts all night or a series of really good snacks are offered along the famous thirteen desserts (pic in the intro), which represent the Christ with the twelve apostles. The thirteen desserts are eaten after Midnight mass. They will remain on the table for the following 3 days, until 27th December. Pic below is of some of our traditional cloths we use to decorate the Christmas table with.

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The Thirteen Desserts: they are as follows (though each family may add its own variations such as oranges, mandarins, the almond paste sweets known as “calissons d’Aix,” chocolates, often accompanying them with the delicious Vin Frizzant de Muscat): the 4 mendicant (orders): dry figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites), raisins (Dominicans) and hazelnuts (Augustinians), dates (symbol of Christ who came from the Orient), nougat (black and white) for the white penitents and black penitents according to some people, while for others white nougat, soft and creamy represents purity and goodness, the harder and brittle black nougat symbolizing impurity and forces of evil (which happens to be my favorite), the “fougasse à l’huile d’olive”, also called “la pompe” (a flat loaf made using sweetened olive oil), a variety of jellied quinces and crystallized fruits, “oreillettes” (light thin waffles), and fresh fruits: mandarins, oranges, pears, almonds. Glacé chesnuts are brought in as well for good measure. Among the Thirteen desserts, we also count the jams made during the grape harvest either from grape must or fig juice to which one has added autumn fruit, and then the fortified wine. The fortified wine is meant to be Jesus himself. So being good Christians we go overboard with that!

I’ll deal with the most important and traditional dish, “La Dinde Aux Marrons” (turkey filled with chestnuts). Surprisingly it’s not at all difficult to prepare, it is served with the pan juices of the bird and for those of you who still harbor “turkey fatigue”, you can substitute the big bird for either a goose, a pheasant or a large duck. You will need to source tinned chestnuts, the savory kind, not the sweet, sugary type (which is divine when mixed with equal amount of slightly beaten double cream!) For 8 persons you need to purchase at least two tins. And the following: 1 large brioche, 6 slices of prosciutto (Parma ham, or pancetta), 1 leek, 6 garlic cloves, 4 or 5 échalottes (shallots) 1 sprig of celery, 1 carrot, 1 glass of good port, about a dozen fresh mushrooms, 3 eggs, a knob of butter, half a glass of olive oil, half a pint of double cream, a little nutmeg, salt & pepper to taste.

Cut & soak the large brioche in the double cream for 1 hour. Chop up the pancetta or prosciutto. Drain the chestnuts and wipe them with paper towel. Chop finely the leek, the shallots, the mushrooms, the garlic and the carrot. In a saucepan over a medium flame, melt the butter with a little olive oil and cook the chopped vegs then add the pancetta. When done remove and put into a mixing bowl. Add the whole chestnuts and the brioche. Mix well then add the eggs. If it’s too runny add a few breadcrumbs. Voila, the stuffing is done. Insert it inside your chosen bird (no pun intended) cover with tinfoil and place into a warm oven (220 Celsius, 425 F) for at least 3 hours if it’s a turkey, less for other birds. Towards the end remove the tinfoil and scoop up the fat with a ladle then add the port to deglaze, add the grated nutmeg and you end up with a simple but highly effective “jus de volaille”. Serve immediately with roasted potatoes and green beans or Brussel sprouts doused with garlic-infused oil.

Every single Christmas we get to eat the log, or La Buche de Noel. It’s a tad complicated though it shouldn’t put you off. It can be prepared well in advance (say 3 days) and it stays for the duration of the festivities because it is enveloped with butter cream. Rich? You bet but it’s worth the effort. After all it is a glorified sponge cake decorated with an attitude! For the sponge cake (I’ve calculated from grams into ounces, so help me God):

155 g (5 oz.) granulated sugar, 5 eggs, 155 g (5 oz.) flour, 45 g (3 tbsp.) butter, 1 packet vanilla sugar, 15 g (1 tbsp.) butter for the pan.1. Ok? Here we go! Break the 5 eggs into a large bowl. Add the 155 g of granulated sugar. Place the bowl over (not in) a pan of simmering water and beat for 1 minute with an electric beater (or by hand if you dare). Remove the bowl from the heat and continue to beat on high speed for about 20 minutes. Gently melt the butter. Skim off the white froth. Sift the flour over the sugar-egg mixture. Fold in, then add the vanilla sugar and warm butter. Cover a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. Spread the batter evenly over top with a spatula. Bake at 220° C (425° F) for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the sponge from the oven and carefully remove the cake from the parchment paper by moistening the paper with a brush dipped in water. Cover it with a clean tea towel until it has cooled. For the butter cream: 250 g (9 oz.) sugar cooked to soft ball stage, 8 egg yolks, 250 g (9 oz.) butter. While the sponge is baking make the butter cream. Cook the sugar with 100 ml (6 tbsp.) of water until it forms a soft ball (about ten minutes, or until some of the syrup dropped into a bowl of cold water forms a ball.) Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl, pour in the hot sugar syrup, beating constantly for two minutes. Continue to beat with an electric mixer for about 10 minutes before adding in the butter, piece by piece.

Spread three-quarters of the butter cream over the sponge cake. Roll the cake up tightly. Decorate the log with the remaining butter cream. Draw the tines of a fork down the log to create the look of bark. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate for at least two hours to set it then you can display your labor of love to all and sundry!

Mulled wine, anyone? Here’s a quick recipe. You need not purchase a pricey bottle of wine for this. Ordinary table wine will do as it is slowly simmering with some nice spices. I sometimes add a dash of Cointreau or Grand Marnier if I have it though a passable brandy ought to do it. Double up spices with each bottle added. The following is for 1 bottle of red: you will need 2 tablespoons brown sugar, a whole orange, 1 apple, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 star anise, 6 cracked cardamom pods, a dozen whole black peppercorns. And a cup of water!

Peel the orange and the apple. Put the peel and all other ingredients but the wine into a stainless steel pot with the water, and warm gently for 10 minutes. Do not boil. Add in the wine and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes (tops) to steep the flavors in. Serve warm.

Something tells me that you’d prefer to make a simpler dessert and since I am in a suitably charitable mood I’ll post of one my all time favorite dessert (and a cinch to make) the venerable Clafoutis, usually made with pitted cherries which can be bought in a good supermarket, either frozen or in a jar. This recipe is old but not ancient, probably dating from around the 1860s. It’s a sort of fruit flan and you would need the following; 1 1/4 cups milk, 1/3 cup sugar, 3 eggs, 1 tablespoon vanilla essence (a good one), 1/2 cup sifted flour, 3 cups pitted cherries (if you come across those who are pickled with Kirsch, get them!), 1/3 cup powdered sugar.

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In a blender blend the milk, sugar, eggs, vanilla and flour. Pour a 1/4 inch layer of the batter in a buttered 7 or 8 cup lightly buttered fireproof baking dish. Place in the oven until a film of batter sets in the pan. Remove from the heat and spread the cherries over the batter. Sprinkle on the 1/3 cup of sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter. Bake at 350 degrees for about for about 45 minutes to an hour. The clafoutis is done when puffed and brown and and a knife plunged in the center comes out clean. Sprinkle with powdered sugar if you wish.

And now comes the entertainment part, a Provencal take on the nativity:

This entry was posted in Food, Memoirs, Recipes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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