Christmas in Provence, that sunny wedge of southern France that runs along the edge of the Mediterranean from the Italian to the Spanish border, follows the Catholic tradition of observing fast before feast.
The traditional replacement for meat on a fast day is salt cod, a challenging ingredient at the best of times, let alone in the depths of winter in a region best suited to the heat of summer. The ingenious cooks of Provence, however, rose to the challenge, and the centerpiece of the souper maigre, the lean meal of the Reveillon, the vigil of the night before, is brandade de morue, a creamy salt cod dip flavored with garlic and rich with new season’s olive oil, one of most delectable dishes ever to grace a festive table.
In medieval times, the pre-Christmas period of abstinence imposed by the Mother Church ran for 40 days, matching the Lenten fast before Easter. These days, the tradition has shrunk to the Eve alone, but salt cod remains on the menu — a symbol of abstinence at a time of plenty. Abstinence has always been relative in Mediterranean lands: The rich always ate more than poor but not necessarily better — and none better than the independent peasantry of Provence, where the feasting of the holiday’s eve runs with scarcely a pause from dusk until dawn.
Christmas in Provence a celebration for all generations
Festivities start as soon as all members of the family, young and old, are gathered round the table. The first installment, souper maigre, a meatless meal washed down with water, is followed by a short pause for attendance at midnight Mass before returning home for the gros souper — roast partridge, pheasant, guinea fowl — after which the wine flows, memories are shared and merrymaking continues into the small hours of Christmas morning.
Regions, towns and villages — even individual households — vary in the rituals and dishes considered proper for the feast. But the traditions I know best are those of Vaison-la-Romaine, a hilltop market town fortified by the Romans where I spent many a merry Reveillon with my young family in the days before my children acquired children of their own.
It goes without saying that a celebration marking the birth of a very important baby is for all the family: No one would dream of sending even the smallest child to bed before he falls asleep on someone’s lap. Which means if you turn up anywhere in the region before midday Christmas Day, you’ll find the shutters up and no one about, even when there’s sunshine to be enjoyed and there might be truffles to be found under the lime-tree walk along the riverbank. Children’s presents must wait till Jan. 6, when the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem with their gifts.
In Vaison-la-Romaine, the traditional fasting supper is the brandade, often purchased ready-made from the local olive-oil merchant, followed by a thick vegetable soup with ribbon pasta, soupe de lasagnes. By the coast, in Marseilles or Nice, it might be a Grande Aioli, a steaming heap of plain-cooked winter vegetables to be eaten with sea snails and a garlicky golden mayo.
But before these good things can be enjoyed comes the setting out of the créche and its santons, a miniature crib surrounded by little figures of local tradesmen and dignitaries, often unflattering represented in various stages of ursury or gluttony, the work of specialist craftsmen with a new figure every year. Close by are laid out les treize desserts, 13 good things: 12 little bowls, one for each of the Disciples, filled with Christmas treats — fresh and dried fruits and local sweetmeats — surrounding a more substantial offering such as an apple tart or a fougasse, a sweetened bread scented with orange water. The selection varies according to local gastronomic strengths — you’ll find grapes in wine-making areas, melons in sandy regions beside the sea — though the number of dishes and the story they tell is common to all. Supplies are regularly renewed throughout the holiday to provide a kind of open larder, allowing the lady of the house to leave her kitchen and enjoy the company of family and guests.
In Vaison, an area that specializes in orchard fruits as well as the black Perigord truffle (another Christmas treat), no arrangement is complete without its little pyramid of William pears, their stalks tipped with scarlet sealing wax to keep them fresh. Sweet things for children include quince paste, crystallized plums, dried apricots, nougat and little boat-shaped marzipan cookies, callisons d‘Aix. The four begging orders of monks, any of whom might be expected to claim a place among the guests, are represented by bowls of blanched almonds for the white-robed Dominicans, rough-skinned figs for the Franciscans, smooth brown hazelnuts for the Carmelites and wrinkled little currants for the Augustines. And as a reminder of the land of the infant’s birth, imported fruits — oranges, tangerines, dates — are on sale in the Saturday market.
On Christmas Day, early-rising children are expected to creep out of the house to visit grandparents and elderly relatives, leaving exhausted parents to sleep off the festivities in peace and recover from the Christmas day hangover. (To cure, take an infusion of sage and garlic laced with olive oil.)
Brandade de morue (Provençale salt cod purée)
If you can buy salt cod ready-soaked, so much the better. If you buy it in dried form, choose 12 ounces middle-cut, chop into 3 to 4 pieces and set it to soak for 24 hours in a large bowl of cold water, changing the water as often as you remember (at least four times). The inclusion of potato is optional but advisable as it helps form the emulsion.
1 pound ready-soaked salt cod
1 onion, chunked
2 bay leaves
Small bundle dried fennel stalks or 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
Short strip of dried or fresh orange peel
½ teaspoon peppercorns
For the brandade:
½ pint (1 cup) warm olive oil
2 to 3 tablespoons warm cream
1 medium potato, boiled, skinned and mashed (optional)
2 to 3 garlic cloves, crushed
Black olives or a small black truffle
1. Place the fish in a roomy saucepan with the poaching aromatics, cover generously with water and bring gently to the boil. Remove the pan from the heat as soon as the water gives a good belch.
2. Add a glass of cold water to halt the cooking process, leave for 5 minutes to complete the softening process, then drain, skin and use tweezers and your fingertips to find and remove any bones.
3. Start with everything at more or less the same temperature — warmed to finger heat. In a mortar or the processor, pound the fish flesh to a paste with the optional potato, garlic and as much of the oil as you need to soften the mix or keep the processor blades moving. Work in the rest of the oil gradually as if making a mayonnaise, adding the warm cream toward the end, until you have a thick white puree. A processor puree will be smoother and whiter than if you make it by hand.
4. Spoon into individual bowls and finish with a single black olive (a symbol of the darkness to come) or, better still, a scraping of black truffle. Serve warm with toast or baguette, as for a paté. It’s deliciously rich, so you don’t need much. Follow, as they do in Vaison-la-Romaine, with a soupe de lasagnes, a chunky vegetable soup with pasta ribbons with frilled edges to remind the children of the Christ child’s curls.
Photo: Provençale Christmas crib figures called santons. Credit: Elisabeth Luard