Christmas Eve is the most important date in the Provençal calender. It is when the family gets together to eat le gros souper, or the big supper before going to Midnight Mass. Most people I know skip the Mass but still get together en famille to eat the supper. Like most traditions around the World, it is the culinary ones that survive.
Last Tuesday I went to my weekly market to find out what I should be buying for the traditional Provençal meal.
My first port of call was the man from outside St Remy. He had the longest leeks, story intact with their roots, huge blettes, or chard in English, which are more stalk than leaf, a long thin orange marrow, which he told me was called le gourd de Nice, carrots, turnips and cardes, cardoons to us, which look like large, misshapen celery stalks.
Cardoons are part of the artichoke family, they grow tall with beautiful silvery stems and leaves and have blue thistle heads flowers; we had them in our garden when we lived in Shropshire before moving to Provence, but I had never tried to cook with them. I asked the man how to prepare them. He told me you have to cut away the stringy backbone of the stalk, breaking a stalk in half to show me, you then have to cut it up and cook it in boiling water for five to ten minutes and then cover it with a béchamel sauce and some cheese, gruyère or Parmesan and put it in the oven.
He said it is often eaten as part of the Christmas supper with anchovy. I then asked him what else was traditionally eaten on the night and he thought for a while, scratched his beard and said different people ate different things, but the main thing was, that you only eat vegetables and fish, no meat. He added that snails were often eaten at the meal, along with fish soup and of course there were the treize desserts. I thanked him, wished him a happy Christmas and moved on.
I went to the fish stall and asked them the same question, they too were a little non-committal. The fishmonger was shucking oysters and gave me one to try. It was very tasty and quite salty, I felt I’d gulped a mouthful of the seawater that it had came from.
I asked him if it is traditional to eat oysters on Christmas Eve and he told me that it had become so in later years, but was not typique to Provence, where escargots had been the more traditional thing to eat. There was a pile of small-assorted fish, some little live crabs and a fish head with a sign saying pour la soupe and so I asked him if fish soup was traditional for Christmas Eve. He said not particularly, but as it was fish some people included it in their meal. As I love fish soup, I decided to buy some along with a small pot of their homemade rouille.
I moved on to olive stall where they also sell dried fruits and salted fish. I asked the woman serving what I would need for les treize desserts and she very kindly wrote down the 13 ingredients that I would need. From her I bought dried figs, almonds, hazelnuts, dates and raisins. She also told me that Morue en Raito, dried salt-cod with a wine and tomato sauce with capers and olives, was a traditional dish eaten on Christmas Eve. She gave me the recipe for this and I bought the ingredients from her, along with a small quantity of salted anchovies for the cardoons.
With my ingredients in the bag so to speak, I went home and did a little further research on Christmas Eve in Provence and this is what I found.
MENU FOR A PROVENÇAL CHRISTMAS EVE SUPPER
There is much symbolism attached to the Christmas Eve meal. The first course must comprise of seven different dishes which do not include meat and which relate to the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. The dessert, les treizes desserts, has thirteen ingredients relating to Jesus and his twelve Apostles. Traditionally this meal was eaten before going to Midnight Mass and called Le gros souper. The ingredients of the first courses differ, but this seems to be a popular selection:
- Oysters, served with small rounds of bread and butter and vinegar with chopped shallots and wedges of lemon
- Soupe de Poisson – Fish Soup, recipe here
- Escargots – these can be bought prepared from your Butcher and heated up in the oven.
- Cardoon and anchovy gratin
- Salt Cod with a tomato and wine sauce – Morue en Raito
- Green Salad with garlic croutons
- Cheese, including Goats cheese
Dessert – Les Treize Desserts
- Oranges, tangerines, pears, apples, grapes. The fruit varies and sometimes quince or grape jelly substitute some of the fresh fruits.
- La Pompe a L’huile – a type of Fougasse a pastry made with olive oil, orange flower water and brown sugar and can be bought at your boulangerie
Wishing you all a very Merry Christmas. Please comment and tell us what you will be eating this Christmas where you live.