Every region has its own Christmas traditions. As for the French Provence, it is a very special assortment of dishes that have been served for several centuries: thirteen desserts.
The origins of an exquisite tradition
The origins of the thirteen desserts go back to 1683. At that time, the large number of sweet dishes on the table was a sign of abundance, and only in the 20th century – the period varies according to historians – is this number associated with the Last Supper, the last meal of Christ with the twelve apostles.
A written reference to thirteen desserts appeared in 1925 in a special Christmas issue of La Pignato, where the Obani author, Dr. Joseph Fallen, states, “Here are many sweets, delicacies, thirteen desserts: you need thirteen, yes thirteen, no more, if you like, but also no less.”
If today it seems that the “Christmas log” has replaced the thirteen desserts on Christmas Eve, the custom of thirteen desserts persists in Provence, where many families seek to pass on the tradition. Traditionally, you enjoy a seven-course “low-fat meal,” such as fish stew and vegetables. After dinner, a midnight mass is attended before a “big dinner” consisting of a small roast goose and the famous thirteen desserts.
Christmas desserts for 3 days
Depending on the towns and villages of Provence, the desserts vary, but the so-called “four beggars” are always present, as they refer to the four religious orders. Walnuts or hazelnuts represent the Augustinian order, almonds represent the Carmel order, dried figs represent the Franciscans, and finally raisins symbolize the Dominican order. Black nougat and white nougat represent the penitents. Then there are and undoubtedly the most majestic: dates and other oriental fruits, reminiscent of the Three Kings. There are also fresh seasonal fruits: white grapes, oranges or tangerines, depending on the cities. “Butter pump,” which is only made in Provence. Finally, add calissons from Aix-en-Provence, quince paste, papillotes and all the other sweets.
Traditionally, the dessert is served on a decorated tray and tasted for three days from December 24 to 26.
List of 13 desserts from Provence
The list of 13 desserts from the 55 counted varies from town to town and from the preferences of each house. But there is a common foundation: four “beignets,” two nougats, and a “butter pump” galette (frère une pompe à l’huile).
Traditionally, dessert is served on a large decorated platter where everyone is free to choose their favorite. Accompanying the desserts is wine in honor of Christ’s wine.
1. Dried figs
Their gray color symbolizes the Franciscan order.
Raisins represent the Dominicans.
Depending on the version, it refers to the Carmelites.
4. Nuts or hazelnuts
Nuts symbolize the Augustinians.
5. Galette “oil pump” (fr. “une pompe à l’huile,” literal translation “oil pump”)
This is a galette flavored with fleur d’orange. Traditionally, it is a dish that a typical Provençal Christmas manger character brings to the divine child and his family. The name of the galette remains a mystery and is still a subject of debate in Provence. Some say the name has to do with the galette’s ability to absorb oil during cooking, while others agree that the name refers to its ability to soak up wine at the end of a meal. It is after the galette has been broken, as Christ broke bread, that it is eaten by dipping it in wine.
6. White Nougat
Nougat with hazelnuts, pine nuts and pistachios.
7. Red Nougat
Rose nougat and pistachio nougat.
8. Black Nougat
Nougat with melted honey, made with almonds.
Last seasonal bunches stored until Christmas in basements or attics.
End-of-season melons that are well preserved.
Orange is a sign of wealth. It is a fruit that was not originally a product of Provence, can also be accompanied by Corsican or Spanish tangerines.
Dates are a symbol of Christ from the East.
13. Exotic fruits
Kiwi, pineapple or mango.