Palm Sunday, the Sunday before the movable Christian feast of Easter that this year falls on April 13, marks the allotted date of Christ’s entrance into Jerusalem through streets strewn with palm fronds, a moment of optimism in the run-up to the gloom of Good Friday.
Thereafter, devout households use palm fronds to decorate streets, balconies and churches to commemorate the unfolding events of Easter week. Splendidly robed Greek Orthodox monks on the island of Patmos, Greece, re-enact the Last Supper beneath arches of palm fronds with a meal of bread and wine.
Elsewhere, as the Christian message spread, congregations in non-palm-tree regions (anyone without a Mediterranean coastline) adapted an older tradition, that of bringing budded greenery indoors to celebrate the return of spring. Willow wands and young growths of hazel and birch — though never hawthorn, which was considered to bring misfortune — were brought indoors and set to unfurl their leaves by the fireside. In Germany, branches of evergreens — holly or yew — were draped with pretzels and apples, a reminder of divine responsibility to restore fertility to fields and woods.
Today, chickpeas are a sign of thanks in Provence
In France, particularly Provence, a similar sentiment was expressed by hanging candied fruits and sugar cookies wrapped in brightly colored paper on branches of olive and bay. In the regional capital, Marseilles, the proper food for Palm Sunday is chickpeas, pois chiches, the result, as legend has it, of the arrival during the Great Famine — and there were many such throughout the Middle Ages — of a shipload of chickpeas from Egypt, much to the relief of the starving citizens who thereafter commemorated the occasion with chickpea soup.
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Since then, by way of giving thanks, chickpea soup is traditionally eaten on Palm Sunday both in Marseilles and the surrounding countryside. This I learned when taking time out from family duties in the 1990s to complete my second novel in a borrowed chateau in the region — huge and drafty and heated by a kitchen range with an insatiable appetite for firewood collected from the forest.
Lambesc was the nearest market town, and Saturday was market day. At the end of a morning’s bargaining, it was usual for exhausted stall holders and customers to queue up for exotic dishes prepared with considerable showmanship by a member of Marseilles’ multiethnic community. Most popular were Moroccan couscous, Spanish paella sold by the scoop and Vietnamese nem, neat little finger-length rolls of shredded vegetables enclosed in a rice pancake, much like Chinese spring rolls, and deep-fried to order.
There was, too, a local specialité du jour offered by the traiteur — a purveyor of ready-prepared dishes, cheese and charcuterie — from a table outside his shop fronting the market square. As soon as I took my place in the queue, the day’s recipe was discussed and embellished by the rest of the queue for the benefit of l’ecrivaine, the writer, myself. In Provence, everyone knows everyone else’s business, and they value their painters and poets and respect the need for a visiting writer to eat good food.
The traiteur’s menu changed with the season and, when appropriate, featured dishes traditional to festivals of the Roman Catholic Church. Meatless dishes were on offer throughout Lent, though prohibitions on enriching them with olive oil or even the odd lardons of bacon were disregarded. Tomorrow being Palm Sunday, I was assured as I joined the traiteur’s Saturday queue, the proper food was soupe aux pois chiches, a thick chickpea soup to be finished, when reheated at home, with the last of the winter’s cheese.
“Bon appetit, madame,” said the traiteur as he ladled out a generous portion. “And don’t forget the cheese.”
Soupe de pois chiche au fromage (Chickpea soup with cheese)
A meatless soup is proper during the last week of Lent, a somber time in the run-up to Easter, though the inclusion of eggs and cheese is a concession to the lighter mood of Palm Sunday, when people traditionally went to the graveyard to decorate ancestors’ final resting places with flowers.
Serves 4 as a main dish
1 pound (500 grams) chickpeas, soaked overnight in cold water
2 mature carrots, diced
2 sticks celery, washed and chopped
1 sprig of thyme
1 sprig of rosemary
1 or 2 bay leaves
¼ cup olive oil
A dozen peppercorns, crushed
Salt to taste
2 eggs forked with 4 tablespoons grated cheese
1. Drain the chickpeas.
2. Bring 4 pints of water to a boil. Add the chickpeas and the rest of the ingredients except the salt.
3. Bring the pot back to a boil. Lid tightly and leave to cook at a rolling simmer for about 2 hours.
4. Add the salt to the soup when the chickpeas are soft.
5. Pour a ladle full of the hot broth into the egg-and-cheese mixture. Off the heat, whisk the mixture into the soup. Do not reboil or the eggs will curdle and your lovely velvety thickening will vanish.
6. Serve with bread, more grated cheese and a salad of lovely spring leaves — young dandelion, lamb’s lettuce, sorrel, chicory — dressed quite plainly with lemon juice, a slick of good oil and salt.
Top illustration: Lunch in Provence, France. Credit: Elisabeth Luard