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Christmas In Provence: The Festivities Go On And On

A Provençal nativity scene made from clay figurines called santons. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

In Provence, Christmastime comes to an official close on Feb. 2. This is not just maddening French bureaucracy but a recognition that Candlemas Day denotes the feast of the purification of the virgin and the beautiful Provençal Nativity scenes made from clay figurines called santons are to be put away for another year.

It will mark the end of several weeks of festivities starting Dec. 4, the feast day of St. Barbara, when everyone plants a few seeds of wheat or lentils on a bed of damp moss. Gradually, these seeds turn into tufts of green, which will be used to decorate the festive tables over the coming weeks — although the celebrations may be a bit muted if the seeds have failed to sprout. This is not a good sign, but perhaps an excuse for an extra glass of elegant Chateau Simone white or rosé or a licorice-based Ricard from Marseille.

Christmas traditions have diminished in the south of France much as they have elsewhere as time moves on. This is not an indication of any less enjoyment, but an evolution to suit more modern mores. The famous gros souper (grand supper) used to be eaten before Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, followed by the réveillon, the “awakening” supper, on return. For many families, however, this has merged into the meal taken on Christmas Day around a table decorated with holly and roses of Jericho, white cloths and candles.

The gros souper was traditionally a meatless yet hearty meal, hence its alternate name of souper maigre (lean supper); it remains essentially simple, fresh and abundant. As Gilles Conchy, owner of Provence Gourmet cookery school, explained at his country house near Aix-en-Provence, there is no single set menu and meals are adapted to regional produce and local availability.

In inland Provence particularly, vegetables play a major role: spinach with garlic and parsley, chard and cardoon, raw celery with anchoiade, olive tapenade, the small but sweet vibrant orange-bronze potimarrons (pumpkins) of the South mashed with black truffle. As elsewhere in France, festive meals frequently begin with oysters and foie gras — in Conchy’s case, violet artichokes with pine nuts, tomatoes and fresh goose foie gras — but thereafter it may include a light garlic and herb broth, Sisteron lamb with herb butter, a chestnut-stuffed turkey or goose, capon, guinea fowl, salt cod with aïoli or a fish bourride, and Banon cheese. The poet of Provence, Frédéric Mistal, recalled a gros souper at the turn of the 19th century that also included snails and gurnard with olives.

Sweet treats for the holidays

Treize Desserts for Christmas in Provence, France. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Treize Desserts for Christmas in Provence, France. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Thirteen loaves of bread were once offered to symbolize Jesus and the apostles. Today that reference is incarnated in the Treize Desserts, the plate of 13 desserts. These are not, as I discovered to the relief of my waistline, a succession of creamy concoctions, but a ritual lineup of delicious things to nibble, most famously four types of nuts and dried fruit or mendicants to represent the Catholic religious orders that require vows of poverty.

After that, it’s a question of region, town or individual family, but items generally include a flat cake made with olive oil (around Aix they add anise seeds and orange-flower water), black and white nougat flavored with lavender honey and Provençal almonds, clementines, candied fruit, quince paste, dates, prunes, green melon, white grapes and the lozenge-shaped almond Calissons d’Aix sweetmeats. According to tradition, guests must sample a little of each dessert with some sweet vin cuit prepared in the autumn.

The appearance of the three wise men on Epiphany is celebrated with a galette des rois (cake of the Magi), as it is in the rest of France. The Provençal version, however, is quite different from the traditional puff pastry one and takes the shape of a crown-shaped brioche encrusted with candied fruits symbolizing the jewels of the Magi.

In Marseille, Candlemas celebrations are dazzling — their roots are in ancient pagan rites of preparation for the end of winter. The blessing of the navettes takes the edible form of biscuits in the shape of the rowing boat that reputedly brought the Saint Maries to the shores of Provence.

Winter in Provence is not just luminous blue skies, Cezanne landscapes and the scent of wild herbs; it is also animated Christmas markets, Nativity scenes, santon fairs, Mass in the ancient Provençal language and time-honored pastoral plays, processions and ceremonies. Soon after Candlemas, the first of the almond trees will bloom — once, Aix was the celebrated center of the almond trade. With this, the cycle of the year begins again in this most magical of French provinces.

Rack of Lamb With Pink Fir Apple Potatoes

Rack of lamb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Rack of lamb. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Recipe courtesy of Gilles Conchy of Provence Gourmet.

Yield: Makes 6 servings

Ingredients

2 racks of lambs of 6 chops each (about 3 1/2 pounds)

Half a stick of unsalted butter

Salt and pepper to taste

Provençal dried herbs (thyme, rosemary and savory) to taste

2 pounds of small pink fir apple potatoes, unpeeled

12 cloves of garlic, unpeeled

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

Directions

1. Cover the lamb with slightly softened butter into which you have mixed salt, pepper and herbs. Place in an oven-safe dish.

2. In a bowl, mix the rinsed but unpeeled potatoes with more herbs, salt, pepper, olive oil and the unpeeled garlic cloves. Arrange these around the sides of the lamb.

3. Cook at 375 F for 40 minutes.

4. Remove the lamb from the oven and slice the chops from the rack. They should be slightly pink on the inside. If not cooked enough, put the chops back in the dish and in the oven for a couple of minutes.

5. Serve the lamb with the potatoes.

Mashed Potimarron With Truffles

Mashed Potimarron With Truffles. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Mashed Potimarron With Truffles is shown with tapenade canapés. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Yield: Makes 8 servings.

Ingredients

2 medium-size potimarron (pumpkins)

5 teaspoons heavy cream

1/3 to 1/2 ounce black truffle

Salt and pepper to taste

Parmesan cheese to taste

Directions

1. Open the potimarron and remove the seeds. Peeling is optional, but it is advised if you can’t get Provençal pumpkins.

2. Cut potimarron into large diced chunks.

3. Steam for 20 minutes.

4. Once steamed, mash the potimarron with the cream, grated truffle, salt and pepper.

5. Turn into an oven dish, top with a little grated parmesan cheese and broil till it browns a little.

Cardoons With Anchovies

Yield: Makes 6 servings.

Ingredients

1 cardoon, about 3 1/2 pounds (Choose the curvy, white variety.)

Juice from 1 lemon

1 handful plus 6 tablespoons flour

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, finely chopped

12 anchovy fillets

4 cups of milk, gently heated

Grated Swiss cheese

Directions

1. Separate the cardoons into branches. With a knife, remove the “threads” on both sides of each branch.

2. Rinse and cut into 1 1/2-inch slices.

3. Drop the cardoon pieces into a pot of water acidulated with lemon juice as you go.

4. Heat another large pot of salted water and stir in a handful of flour. When it boils, drain the cardoons from the first pot, add to the boiling water and cook for an hour.

5. In a frying pan, heat the olive oil, onion, garlic and anchovies over medium heat. Drain the cardoons and add to the pan. Turn the heat to low.

6. Combine the remaining flour and the milk in a saucepan and stir until it thickens.

7. Place the sauce in an oven dish with the cardoons. Top with a little Swiss cheese and broil until it browns a little.

Bourride (Fish Stew With Aïoli)

Bourride made with monkfish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Bourride made with monkfish. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman

Yield: Makes 4 servings.

Ingredients

For the fish stock:

Salt and pepper to taste

1 fish head

1 onion

2 leeks

1 celery branch

7 ounces white wine

For the aïoli:

2 cloves of garlic

1 egg yolk, at room temperature

1 teaspoon mustard

Salt and pepper to taste

4 ounces olive oil

4 ounces sunflower oil

1 soup spoon lemon juice

For the bourride:

1 ounce olive oil

1 yellow onion, thinly sliced

2 to 3 branches of dried fennel

1 bay leaf

Orange peel (a coin’s worth)

4 large potatoes, sliced a quarter of an inch thick

Salt and pepper to taste

2 egg yolks, at room temperature

4 slices white fish (conger eel, cod, angler fish, whiting or bass, for example)

Salt and pepper to taste

4 slices of grilled bread

Directions

For the fish stock:

1. In a saucepan, combine 3 1/2 pints of water, salt, pepper, the fish head, onion, leeks and celery and slowly bring to a boil.

2. Skim off the top layer, then lower the heat.

3. Add the wine and simmer for 30 minutes (no more). Check the stock occasionally while cooking and skim if necessary.

4. Filter the stock through a colander.

For the aïoli:

1. Peel and crush the garlic, then combine the garlic paste with one egg yolk, mustard, salt and pepper.

2. Mix the oils and start to add the garlic mixture drop by drop very slowly, whisking all the while. This process is delicate, so never stop whisking and only when your aïoli starts to come together can you start to dribble in the oil a little faster.

3. About halfway through the process, add the lemon juice.

4. Set aside in the refrigerator.

For the bourride:

1. In a cooking pot, layer the ingredients in the following order: the thinly sliced onion, 2 tablespoons of olive oil, the fennel branches, the bay leaf, the orange peel, the sliced potatoes, salt and pepper.

2. Brown these ingredients 2 to 3 minutes on high heat without stirring. (Shake your pot a little so the onions do not burn.)

3. Add enough warm fish stock to barely cover the ingredients. Cover the pot and cook for 10 minutes at medium heat.

4. Place the slices of fish on top and as much stock as is needed to cover the fish.

5. Cover the pot and cook for 6 to 8 minutes. Check to make sure the fish and potatoes are cooked, then remove from the heat.

6. Soak the grilled bread in fish stock and set aside.

7. Remove 2 tablespoons of aïoli for each serving and set aside.

8. Put the remaining aïoli in the cooking pot, add 2 egg yolks and 9 ounces of fish stock. Mix over very low heat and keep stirring until the sauce thickens.

9. Pour the sauce on the soaked bread. Place a slice in each serving dish and top with the fish and potatoes. Use the reserved aïoli as a mayonnaise and offer a little extra fish stock for those who want extra moisture.

Main image: A Provençal Nativity scene made from clay figurines called santons. Credit: Copyright 2015 Clarissa Hyman



Zester Daily contributor Clarissa Hyman is an award-winning food and travel writer. She is twice winner of the prestigious Glenfiddich award among others. A former television producer, she now contributes to a wide range of publications and has written four books: "Cucina Siciliana," "The Jewish Kitchen," "The Spanish Kitchen" and "Oranges: A Global History." She is based in Manchester, England, and is the vice president of the UK Guild of Food Writers.

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