Nov 082015

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 last December, we had plenty to taste of what is certainly one of the most delicious of Christmas traditions in Provence, the 13 desserts.

A vendor at the Christmas market in Avignon selling many items commonly included in the thirteen desserts

Shoppers at the Christmas market in Avignon selecting items commonly included in 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.
Les quatre mendicants -- walnuts, almonds, figs, and raisins -- the base four items for the thirteen desserts tradition of Christmas in Provence

Les quatre mendicants — walnuts, almonds, figs, and raisins — base four items of the 13 desserts

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.
Gorgeous and sweet candied fruit, one of the key 13 desserts of a Provencal Christmas

Gorgeous and sweet candied fruit

  • 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.
Left: Pompe a l'huile; Right: Calissons d'Aix --- two of the traditional Christmas thirtenn desserts of Provence

Left: Pompe a l’huile; Right: Calissons d’Aix

  • 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.
Varieties of nougat, one of the traditional Christmas 13 desserts

Varieties of nougat desserts

  • 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
Chocolate truffles at Pâtisserie Jouvaud in Carpentras, Provence, France

Chocolate truffles at Pâtisserie Jouvaud in Carpentras

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. Which of the desserts is appealing to your taste buds the most?

We’re linking up to:

Budget Travelers Sandbox

  13 Responses to “Christmas Traditions in Provence: 13 Desserts”

  1. Oh my! So many delicious choices. I would not know what to try (maybe a combination of them). I find the olive oil sweet bread very interesting. I have see recipes for olive oil cake but have never tasted it.

  2. OMGoodness, Cathy, these are sinfully delicious! I’m so glad they’re only photos. Would love to make some calisson

  3. Well I just love nougat so I would be concentrating my efforts in eating that! I can’t believe how many times the candied fruit is treated with sugar. 🙂

  4. A mouth-watering post you provided us today! I think I gained a pound just reading it!

  5. Catherine, I’ve never heard of this tradition before. It sounds tasty, but I’m thinking it must have been invented by dentists!

  6. Hi Cathy. What a choice to have to make! Everything looks sinfully delicious. I would probably go with the chocolate truffles. Thanks for linking up this week. #TPThursday

  7. 13 desserts! We’d be stuffed! Are you supposed to eat all of them? No matter, it’s a “sweet” tradition :-). The almond pastry with orange peel gets us drooling.

  8. We usually do the seven fishes tradition (from southern Italy) on Christmas eve, this would go great with that. Although, don’t know if we could possibly eat it all. Here’s to trying.

  9. Although I really don’t like Calissons, you sold me on the other foods! Haven’t been to Provence at Xmas time, but now it’s on my list.

  10. Oooh! I love European Christmas treats and markets! Now you have me all fired up again! I’m not sure if I could manage 13 desserts in such a short space of time, but….I’d be willing to try 🙂
    Love the idea that oranges are a sign of wealth. No wonder they were always stuffed in the toes od Christmas stockings years ago. And – you can sell me on Bugnes fritters anytime! Delicious post! Merry Christmas!

  11. […] emphasizing a village’s local products), but commonly include a combination of treats. See our 13 Desserts post for a list of these and more […]

  12. […] emphasizing a village’s local products), but commonly include a combination of treats. See our 13 Desserts post for a list of these and more […]

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