The sweet tradition of Christmas in Provence: 13 desserts
Christmas sweets have a key part in most cultures and Mr. TWS and I have indulged in many during our holiday travels. When we visited Provence, we had plenty to taste of what is certainly one of the most delicious of Christmas traditions in Provence, the 13 desserts.
Part of the Christmas Eve celebration, the 13 desserts are typically served after Midnight Mass and include a selection of fruits, nuts, pastries, confections, and other sweets that can vary by region, village, and family. They have religious significance (the number 13 represents Christ and his 12 disciples) and they also symbolize prosperity and harvest abundance. According to tradition, sampling each dessert along with mulled wine will bring good fortune in the coming year.
13 desserts menu
- Les quatre mendicants (the four beggars) are the four base items of the 13 desserts. They commemorate four Catholic religious orders that took vows of poverty: walnuts and hazelnuts for the Augustinians, dried figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites, and raisins for the Dominicans.
The remainder of the desserts commonly include variations of the following treats with selections that emphasize local products and family preferences:
- Candied fruit is a very important and delicious part of the desserts and we sampled our share of the very sweet crystallized fruit. At Confiserie Saint Denis in Les Beaumettes, the candy-maker explained the long process of preparation which dates back to Roman times when it was primarily a method used to preserve the fruit. For one month, the fruit is soaked in sugar syrup and boiled and cooled seven times. It then remains in the syrup for at least two more months. When removed, the fruit is dipped in a high sugar concentration syrup and then dried. Depending upon the particular fruit, there is a slight variation in the preparation before being immersed in the syrup.
- Pompe a l’huile (the oil pump), often called Gibassier, is a totally delicious flat sweet bread made with olive oil. There is an arduous 24-hour process involved in the making of it as we learned from a vendor in Aix-en-Provence.
- Calissons d’Aix are pastries made of finely ground almonds, melon, and orange peel on a wafer that is topped with icing. The calisson is a specialty of Aix-en-Provence and is often represented in local artwork and décor. It’s said that calissons were first created in 1454 for the wedding of King Rene to Jeanne de Laval, a woman who never smiled until she tasted this special treat. She asked the confectioner what they were called and he replied in Provençal: “di calins souns” (“they are little hugs”). There is an annual blessing of calissons in Aix-en-Provence the first Sunday of September commemorating this and other legends about calissons. Another story says that it was believed eating a calisson a day was protection from the Great Plague of 1629-1630.
- Black and white Provençal nougat
- Apples and pears
- Brignoles prunes
- Verdaù (green melon)
- Oranges (a sign of wealth), mandarins and clementines
- Christmas melon
- White grapes
- Quince jam
- Bugnes fritters, little doughnuts infused with orange blossom
- Milk shortbread
- Almond cake
- Dates stuffed with almond paste
- Other sweets such as chocolate truffles
We had many tastes of the 13 desserts in each of the cities and villages we visited. As another Christmas season in approaching, I’m most craving pompe a l’huile and Calissons d’Aix.