French Stories 2: Les treize desserts provençale
[Nuts in Shells]
Backtracking to my Christmas in Provence, one entire week of homecooked food made me felt completely pampered. (Merçi mille fois, Jacqueline!) A traditional Christmas meal in Provence is a whole different type of fanfare especially with its 13 desserts to sweeten your palatte after dinner. Before the festivities begin, the morning markets in Southern France are flooded with people loading up their baskets with fresh and dried produce alike, as well as fresh-cut flowers. I tagged along with my hostess Jacqueline to the market to catch in all the sights and at times inquired politely to the stall-owners if I could take a picture or two. (An attempt to practice my French too!)
Les treize desserts consist of a list of complementing pastry and fruits that are native to the region. The number 13 symbolizes Yeshua and his 12 disciples.
First up, there are the dried fruits called les quatre mendiants (the four beggars) referring to the four catholic orders:
- Les raisins secs or raisins (Dominicans)
- Les figues sèches or dried figs (Franciscans)
- Les noisettes or hazelnuts (Augustines)
- Les amandes or almonds (Carmelites).
Then there's la pompe à huile, a pastry made with olive oil,
which according to tradition has to be broken by hand like Yeshua did when he broke the bread at the last supper. No knife is used to cut the pastry to ensure a good year ahead.
Next up is my favorite of the 13 desserts: la nougat. There are two versions, blanc et noir. The light or white nougat is made with hazelnuts, pinenuts or pistachios, while the dark one is made of melted honey and almonds. I tasted la nougat noir this time. It is sticky and sweet confection and the almonds are really fresh and tasty. I imagine the white ones are similar to its spanish cousin, el turron.
The final step to complete the dessert platter are fresh and dried fruits according to each family or community's preference. I think tangerines and grapes are tops as they are local and in season and I find loads of them in the market. In France and Spain, tangerines are known as clementines or mandarines. They are a symbol for prosperity too, apparently, in this part of the world. (It always reminds me of Chinese New Year.) Dates are very common too, as well as those that comes stuffed in a pastel-colored sweet almond paste. Other sweets added include winter melon confits and prunes.
Even though I was ready to tuck into bed after a five-course dinner that started with champagne and ended with les treize desserts provencale, I held to my own suggestion to attend midnight mass. The best part was the christmas caroles we sang (yes, in french) in the church. That led us to sing all the way in the car ride home (I sang in English and Jacqueline in French concurrently) and right up to the building's entrance, at which a neighbor did a sign with his fist making a motion as if he's turning a knob right in front of his nose. I recognized it as the french sign meaning drunk. He was attributing our carole-singing to too much a glass to drink. Guess how Jacqueline responded? A most appropriate prayer-hands sign (hey it's international) alluding to the christmas mass that kept our spirits high!