The Thirteen Desserts
Celebrating Christmas in Provence with the Thirteen Desserts...
It's snowing in Provence. The village bells have been ringing for the last 5 minutes; in a few moments, Midnight Mass will begin. The last families to arrive hurry inside, with lanterns and candles in hand, to join their friends, families and neighbours. As always on the banks of the Rhône river and in the foothills of Sainte Victoire mountain, the biting cold digs deep and a northerly wind cuts through the air. Snow crunches underfoot and children sing the traditional "Le Divin Enfant" Christmas Carol. Strangely, that night the mass seems shorter; people forget the chill as they admire the snowflakes sparkling under the full moon that has just emerged from between two clouds. Back home, as if by magic, thirteen desserts are laid out on the table, on three tablecloths.
Far from being a legend, we know exactly where this tradition comes from and when it began. It all started at the foot of the Garlaban Hills in the first half of the 20th century, in Aubagne, the home of the 'Santon' figurine and a town dear to Marcel Pagnol. The thirteen desserts were mentioned for the first time in a local newspaper – a fact fiercely upheld by the now-deceased historian Marion Nazet, a leading expert on 20th-century Provencal customs. The newspaper quoted Lou Cremascle, an association of bourgeois from Marseille, which initially came up with the idea of bringing together thirteen desserts – thirteen local delicacies – and crowning them with a symbolic and religious halo.
Georges Mérentier, a member of the 'Amis du Vieil-Aubagne' association concurs: "Frédéric Mistral, who was clever enough to write about the entire array of Provencal customs (...) doesn't mention the 13 desserts; he mentions the desserts, but never quotes the number 13. However, I have read twice that Joseph Fallen, a priest from Aubagne, was the first to mention them in the newspaper 'La Pignato', dated December 21st, 1925". Mérentier, a fervent history-lover and exegete of Provencal traditions, is categorical: the custom was invented from start to finish in Aubagne...
No precise list
Now that we're sure of the origin, let's look at the content: is there a precise list of the thirteen desserts? Those that say there is are wrong – and they'd be hard put to come up with written proof! In truth, there are six obligatory items including the '4 Mendiants' (4 Beggars), evoking religious orders that had taken a vow of poverty (walnuts or hazelnuts for the Augustinians, dried figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites and raisins for the Dominicans), black and white nougat (which counts as one dessert) and the famous ''Pompe à l’huile d’olive' sweet brioche made with olive oil.
Regarding nougat, 'La Pignato' newspaper – once again - evoked the presence of red nougat made with rose and pistachio in 1935, said to symbolize an offering made to Baby Jesus by one of the Three Kings...
Last but not least, let your imagination run wild when it comes to fresh fruit (apples, pears) and fruit from the East (oranges, dates). According to the area, the platter is also embellished with candied fruit (as in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence), 'Calisson' candies (as in Aix), 'Navette' orange flower biscuits (as in Marseille), 'Oreillette' or 'Bugne' sweet fritters sprinkled with icing sugar, fruit jelly, 'Gibassié' brioche, prunes, chocolate, etc.
And what do we drink with all of this? Let's not forget that the thirteen desserts are savoured after returning home from midnight mass – so beware of the Sin of Greed!
In Provence, the traditional mulled wine is dying out. Just a few wine-growing families, mainly in the Aix area, continue to uphold this all-natural tradition, which starts with cooking the grape pulp left over from the grape harvest in a copper pot, over a wood fire. The final product is stored in oak casks and aged for several years. Another typical Provencal speciality is 'Cartagène' (grape pulp mixed with sugar and brandy), delicious drunk in moderation…
"The evening, spent waiting for midnight Mass, was long that day, and around the fire they spoke at length of ancestors and praised their deeds"
Le Grand Pastis offers a picture-postcard portrait of gourmet Provence. Pierre Psaltis shares his conception of gastronomy, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, presents his tasted-and-approved recipes, uncorks the finest vintages and invites you out to dinner... A concentrate of news, spiked with the inimitable local accent.
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