Carolyne Kauser-AbbottProvencal RecipesTaste

Discover the Tradition of the 13 Desserts of Christmas in Provence

A buffet table laden with 13 desserts! How could the French be so smug as to think that North Americans with our turkey-centric Christmas dinners, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes and a variety of sides are excessive? Or so I felt when I first heard about this holiday tradition.

However, like most customs in the South of France, the historical and religious foundation begins to make sense once you peel back the layers.

Walnuts in Provence @PerfProvence

Christmas celebrations are focused around the evening before December 25th when Provençal dinner tables are set with three white tablecloths for the gros souper (translation: big supper). The symbolism surrounding the table preparation is deliberate. The three layers of white fabric represent the holy trinity. The table decorations are not elaborate but rather simply an acknowledgement of the fruits of agricultural labour each year – sprouted wheat from the Fête of Sainte Barbara and carafes of sweet wine (vin cuit) from the fall harvest.

Provence’s typical Christmas Eve meal is meatless, with seven fish and vegetable dishes on the lighter side but not insignificant. These plates might include omelettes, salted cod and potatoes – brandade de morue, ratatouille, and a local garlic soup. The number of dishes represents Mary’s seven sorrows.

Christmas Traditions 13 Desserts of Provence @PerfProvence

Following midnight mass, it is time for the 13 desserts. The amount has nothing to do with a baker’s dozen but is equal to the number of participants around the table at the Last Supper; Jesus and his 12 apostles. The exact make-up of les treize desserts is not prescriptive. However, the sweets generally fall into four categories: dried fruit and nuts, fresh seasonal fruit, fruit preserved in sugar syrup and sweetened bread.

Several religious orders of monks (Augustin, Carmelites, Dominicans and Franciscans) were prevalent during the Middle Ages in Provence. “The four beggars” are represented by dried fruit (figs, raisins, apricots) and nuts (walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts).

Market nougat in Provence @perfProvence

Two kinds of nougat (black and white) are typically found in the dessert mix to symbolise good and evil. The black nougat is made with local almonds and honey and tends to be quite hard. The white version has hazelnuts and pistachios; it is generally softer but sticky. As a note, these delicious sweet treats can be rough on your teeth, so small bites are a reasonable precaution.

Candied fruits may include the Calisson d’Aix (a local speciality with candied melon and almonds a little like marzipan), fruit preserved in syrup or fruit jellies and pastes.

With the approach of December, Provencal markets are often an array of colours with bright citrus (orange, tangerines, clementines), apple and pear varieties, and grapes. So naturally, some of this fresh fruit would also be on the buffet.

Christmas Citrus in Provence @PerfProvence

No dessert table would be complete without a family’s version of local sweet bread made with olive oil. The pompe à l’huile or fougasse looks a little like an oversized pretzel but has nothing to do with that salty snack. Instead, this bread has the texture of brioche and is flavoured with anise or citrus or other spices. But, of course, no Provencal native would ever cut the pompe à l’huile with a knife, and it should be torn by hand – like the breaking of the bread for the apostles.

Pompe a l'huile traditional bread in Provence @PerfProvence

So now it is well after midnight, and there is no way you could eat more dessert. But, no worries, the table will remain set for three days to share with guests who may come to visit during the holidays.

A version of this article previously appeared on Cook’n with Class in Uzès.

More Holiday Recipes

Calissons d'Aix
A truly enjoyable treat to make and connect with bakers long ago. Patience will be your reward if you can let them sit overnight to set. And while this is a traditional recipe, it is by no means easy to master. So even if it doesn’t look perfect, it will taste just as delicious. Served alongside afternoon tea or at the end of a delicious evening meal, these sweet delicate Calissons will be a welcome addition to your baking repertoire.
Check out this recipe
Calisson d'Aix Recipe
Calissons d'Aix a Sweet Candy
This recipe takes time. It's a fun culinary project with a sweet result. You need to leave enough time (about a week) for the fruit paste to reach the right consistency.
Check out this recipe
Calissons d'Aix Recipe
Mendiant Tart
A flaky sweet pastry tart filled with decadent chocolate ganache and topped with candied fruits, flowers and fleur de sel,
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Chocolate Mendiant Tart Recipe Christmas @CocoaandLavender
Candied Clementines (Clementines Confits) with Moroccan spices
This dessert can be made all year! When I am in France, I buy clementines from Corsica. In Los Angeles, I can find clementines (sometimes known as Cuties in the U.S.) throughout the year. It’s a simple dessert that can be served by itself or cut in julienne strips and served on top of ice cream, yogurt or a pound cake (The French version of a pound cake is Quatre Quart)! Please note that the clementines will be a burnt orange colour once they are candied because of the Moroccan spices.
Check out this recipe
Candied Clementines Clementines Confit Moroccan Spices
Fougasse d’Aigues Mortes
Fougasse d'Aigues Mortes is a sweet brioche-style bread dusted in sugar. This traditional chewy bun can be enjoyed on its own or with other pastries. Either way, it's sure to impress.
Check out this recipe
Fougasse d’Aigues Mortes
Galette Provençale - Christmas Cake
Shaped like a wreath and decorated with dried fruit, the galette Provençale is a seasonal favourite. This recipe takes a bit of time, but like all holiday baking, the result is delicious and well worth the wait.
Check out this recipe
Galette Provençale a Traditional Holiday Recipe
Galette des Rois (Epiphany cake)
Here is what Phoebe has to say: Making your own Galette des Rois is very simple, assuming you can get hold of ready-made puff pastry. In France, we’re spoilt with excellent quality puff pastry that comes ready-rolled with its own baking paper, available in every supermarket.  And even better than that, during the festive period, roughly December and January, kits of puff pastry with a crown and figurine are sold too!
Check out this recipe
Galette des rois Epiphny Cake @FibiTee

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Carolyne Kauser-Abbott

Carolyne Kauser-Abbott

With her camera and laptop close at hand, Carolyne has traded in her business suits for the world of freelance writing and blogging. Her first airplane ride at six months of age was her introduction to the exciting world of travel.

While in Provence, Carolyne can be found hiking with friends, riding the hills around the Alpilles or tackling Mont Ventoux. Her attachment to the region resonates in Perfectly Provence this digital magazine that she launched in 2014. This website is an opportunity to explore the best of the Mediterranean lifestyle (food & wine, places to stay, expat stories, books on the region, travel tips, real estate tips and more), through our contributors' articles.

Carolyne writes a food and travel blog Ginger and Nutmeg. Carolyne’s freelance articles can be found in Global Living Magazine, Avenue Magazine and City Palate (Published Travel Articles).

4 Comments

  1. blank
    December 15, 2018 at 6:14 am — Reply

    Very informative & interesting, Carolyne. The symbolism of the 7 dishes, 13 desserts, 3 tablecloths…
    Thank you for for your beautiful photos and well-researched articles.
    Kam

    • blank
      December 15, 2018 at 7:38 am — Reply

      Hello, Kamla thank you for reading Perfectly Provence and for your lovely comment. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas season and all the very best for 2019.

  2. blank
    Cardamom
    December 15, 2018 at 10:46 am — Reply

    Very informative with your beautiful photography, takes me back to the Christmas we shared with you in Chamonix. Years ago

    • blank
      December 15, 2018 at 3:20 pm — Reply

      Thanks Carda-mom!

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