In Provence the traditional Christmas Eve dinner is ironically called le gros super. A repas maigre, meaning that no meat is served, it is a feast nonetheless, where every dish is traditional and each detail filled with symbolism. The table is set with three tablecloths and three candles to symbolize the Holy Trinity, and the cloths are not changed during the three days of Christmas (Dec. 24 to 26). When the family leaves the table for midnight Mass, they do not clean away the crumbs but instead leave them for the souls of their ancestors, who are believed to visit the house on Christmas Eve. The long corners of the tablecloth are knotted, to prevent bad spirits from using the tablecloth to make their way into the family.
The meal usually begins with a light soup, such as aigo boulido, a garlic broth seasoned with herbs and enriched with an egg. In the Alpes de Haute Provence, the soup is traditionally a clear broth with pasta shapes called creusets. Fish follows, salt cod or gray mullet accompanied by snails and vegetables — cardoons and artichokes, cauliflower, beets, and turnips, greens, carrots and chickpeas — all served with an abundance of the pungent garlic mayonnaise, aïoli. This course is called the aïoli monstre. It may or may not be followed by a salad of winter greens such as chicory, endive or frisée, and goat cheese.
Finally, the famous grand finale, les treize desserts. They are innately Provençal, simple and unadorned. The number probably symbolizes Christ and his 13 apostles. As for what these 13 desserts consist of, there is some variation throughout the region, and if you really stop to count, you might not come up with 13.
Pompe à l’Huile, a brioche-like olive oil and orange flower-scented bread, is always served, as is a selection of dried fuits and nuts, and tangerines and/or oranges. We move swiftly toward 13 here as each dried fruit and nut counts as one dessert. Many are symbolic: Almonds, hazelnuts, raisins and figs are referred to as Li pachichoi in Provençal, les 4 mendiants (the four beggars) in French, because their respective colors evoke the robes of the mendicant orders — Carmelite, Augustine, Dominican and Franciscan. Prunes, dates, quince jelly (pâte de coings) and other candied fruits from the town of Apt, in the Vaucluse, are a big treat at the Christmas table.
Both white and black nougat, the Provençal candy made from almonds and honey, number among the 13 desserts. A kind of winter melon may appear or not. You may see roasted chestnuts, other types of sweet fougasse, and rooster-shaped pastries called cocoricos d‘Auriol. Other sweets — chocolates, fondants, candied chestnuts — popular throughout France at Christmas have found their way onto the gros souper table in recent decades. But they are not authentic; they would have been too dear for the Provençal peasants among whom this beautiful tradition evolved.
Provençal Orange Scented Christmas Bread
Yields one large or two smaller loaves, serving 16
Provençal bakers shape this olive oil bread into a ring or ladder, like the other traditional regional bread, fougasse. I make a traditional round loaf, because the ring always closes during the second rise when I try a ring shape. You could also bake it in a brioche pan. The bread is traditionally made with white flour, but I like using half whole wheat.
- Dissolve the yeast in the water in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle. Add the honey and 100 grams (about ¾ cup) of the unbleached flour. Stir together, cover the bowl with plastic and let stand for 30 minutes, until the mixture is bubbling.
- Add the sugar, eggs, olive oil, orange flower water and orange zest to the sponge and mix together on low speed with the paddle or with a whisk by hand. Add the remaining unbleached flour, the whole wheat flour and the salt and mix briefly with the paddle on low speed, then change to the dough hook and mix for 10 minutes on medium speed, or knead the dough by hand on a lightly floured surface. The dough will be sticky. Shape the dough into a ball, clean and dry your bowl, and coat lightly with olive oil. Place the dough in it rounded side down first, then rounded side up. Cover the bowl with plastic and let rise in a warm spot for 2 hours, until the dough has doubled in size.
- Punch down the dough and divide in 2. If desired, brush brioche molds with olive oil. Shape each piece of dough into a ball. If you wish to shape the dough into rings (I find they don’t maintain that shape when they rise), flatten them slightly, then make a hole in the center by plunging your thumb into the center, then gently pulling apart the dough with your hands.
- Place the dough on lightly oiled baking sheets and cover with a damp towel. Set in a warm spot to rise for 1 hour. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 F.
- Beat together the egg and water for the egg wash and lightly brush the loaves. Place in the oven and bake for 40 to 45 minutes, until golden brown and the loaf responds to tapping with a hollow thumping sound. Brush again with egg wash after 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool on a rack.
Advance preparation: The bread freezes well for up to a month and can be kept at room temperature for 2 days. Leftovers make great French toast.
Photo: Fruits and nuts are part of classic Provencal Christmas desserts. Credit: Silvia Jansen / iStockphoto.com