In Provence, our Christmas season begins on 4th December, the day of St. Barbe, with the ritual sowing of wheat and lentils on dishes to provide some fresh green shoots to decorate the Christmas table. Our Christmas festivities last for three whole days (and nights), from 24th to 26th December so we get to eat lots of stuff. And drink! The word blotto comes to mind.
For the people of Provence, Christmas is a series of traditional customs beginning with the "gros souper," the large supper served on Christmas Eve before Midnight Mass. The table around which the family gathers is decorated according to custom with sprigs of myrtle and St. Barbe's wheat and lentil sprouts (which are symbols of prosperity).
Next week I will write a special piece on vegetarian Christmas dinner.
First, a little history on our language: Provençal is a dialect of southern Occitanian, but was often used to mean the southern Oc language in general. It appeared in Latin texts in the 11th century and was common in courtly literature in the 12th century. Provençal was spread by the troubadours who traveled across this land with stories set to music and poetry. The word "troubadour" itself comes from the Provençal "trobar", meaning "to find". In the Middle Ages, Provençal and Latin were the only two written administrative languages. Provençal was the language spoken at the pontifical court of Avignon, and was the language Dante nearly wrote his Divine Comedy in. Alas for us, the 1539 Edict of Villers-Cotterêts dealt the death knell to Provençal as an official language. The decree was that the Parisian (Ile de France) dialect would be used for all French administration. Provençal literature lived on, however, until the 19th century, with stories, legends, theatre and poetry, and Provençal dictionaries are still published to this day. At the end of the 19th century, Frédéric Mistral lead a revival of the Provençal language. As a kid growing up in the South of France all my family spoke it and I can still understand it though lost most of it during my peripatetic life.
Check the video above, it's "La Pastorale des Santons de Provence", a very funny and touching musical version of the nativity written & recorded last century. I still have the CD my aunt sent me and will play it on Christmas Eve.
Christmas cannot be imagined in Provence without the crèche and all its small santons (the little saints). So, on December 4th, everyone opens the box where the santons have been asleep. The crèche is set up and, for two months, its presence will illuminate a corner of the house.
The Crèche: the first crèche appeared in Italy. The legend is that one night in 1223, in Greccio in the Abbruzzes, Saint Francis of Assisi had a living Christmas scene set up in a stable. There were an ox and a donkey and Saint Francis invited everyone to celebrate the Nativity. This celebration was followed by others all over Italy, and in the late 13th century, the first crèches appeared in the churches of Provence. And that's when we come in. Our crèche is not your typical ass & donkey business with the little one by the manger. No, we have created a whole new storyline. In our crèche, we find all the population of a Provençal village, the Holy Family (Biblical personnages), to be joined on Twelth Night by the Three Wise Men. All this small world of painted clay figures or dressed in bright colours will stay in the house for forty days before they go back into their box until next year.
Enough history! We want recipes! Well, in the olden days only salted cod was served with stewed vegetables on the eve of Christmas, no meat was ever cooked. Nowadays almost everyone either goes to a restaurant for a "reveillon" which lasts all night or a series of really good snacks are offered along the famous thirteen desserts (see pic below), which represent the Christ with the twelve apostles. The thirteen desserts are eaten after Midnight mass. They will remain on the table for the following 3 days, until 27th December.
They are as follows (though each family may add its own variations such as oranges, mandarins, the almond paste sweets known as "calissons d'Aix," chocolates, often accompanying them with the delicious Vin Frizzant de Muscat): the 4 mendicant (orders): dry figs (Franciscans), almonds (Carmelites), raisins (Dominicans) and hazelnuts (Augustinians), dates (symbol of Christ who came from the Orient), nougat (black and white) for the white penitents and black penitentsaccording to some people, while for others white nougat, soft and creamy represents purity and goodness, the harder and brittle black nougat symbolising impurity and forces of evil, the "fougasse à l'huile d'olive", also called "la pompe" (a flat loaf made using olive oil), quince cheese or crystallized fruit, "oreillettes" (light thin waffles), and fresh fruits: mandarins, oranges, pears, almonds. Glacé chesnuts are brought in as well for good measure. Among the Thirteen desserts, we also count the jams made during the grape harvest either from grape must or fig juice to which one has added autumn fruit, and then the fortified wine. The fortified wine is meant to be Jesus himself.
Tonight I'll deal with the most important and traditional dish, "La Dinde Aux Marrons" (turkey filled with chestnuts). Surprisingly it's not at all difficult to prepare, it is served with the pan juices of the bird and for those of you who still harbor "turkey fatigue", you can substitute the big bird for either a goose, a pheasant or a large duck. You will need to source tinned chestnuts, the savory kind, not the sweet, sugary type (which is divine when mixed with equal amount of slightly beaten double cream!) For 8 persons you need to purchase at least two tins. And the following: 1 large brioche, 6 slices of prosciutto (Parma ham, or pancetta), 1 leek, 6 garlic cloves, 4 or 5 echalottes (shallots) 1 sprig of celery, 1 carrot, 1 glass of good port, about a dozen fresh mushrooms, 3 eggs, a knob of butter, half a glass of olive oil, half a pint of double cream, a little nutmeg, salt & pepper to taste.
Cut & soak the large brioche in the double cream for 1 hour. Chop up the pancetta or prosciutto. Drain the chestnuts and wipe them with paper towel. Chop finely the leek, the shallots, the mushrooms, the garlic and the carrot. In a saucepan over a medium flame melt the butter with a little olive oil and cook the chopped vegs then add the pancetta. When done remove and put into a mixing bowl. Add the whole chestnuts and the brioche. Mix well then add the eggs. If it's too runny add a few breadcrumbs. Voila, the stuffing is done. Insert it inside your chosen bird (no pun intended) cover with tinfoil and place into a warm oven (220 Celsius, 425 F) for at least 3 hours if it's a turkey, less for other birds. Towards the end remove the tinfoil and scoop up the fat with a ladle then add the port to deglaze, add the grated nutmeg and you end up with a simple but highly effective "jus de volaille". Serve immediately with roasted potatoes and green beans or Brussel sprouts doused with garlic-infused oil.
Every single Christmas we get to eat the log, or La Buche de Noel. It's a tad complicated though it shouldn't put you off. It can be prepared well in advance (say 3 days) and it stays for the duration of the festivities because it is enveloped with buttercream. Rich? You bet but it's worth the effort. After all it is a glorified sponge cake decorated with an attitude! For the sponge cake (I've calculated from grams into ounces, so help me God):
155 g (5 oz.) granulated sugar, 5 eggs, 155 g (5 oz.) flour, 45 g (3 tbsp.) butter, 1 packet vanilla sugar, 15 g (1 tbsp.) butter for the pan.1. Ok? Here we go! Break the 5 eggs into a large bowl. Add the 155 g of granulated sugar. Place the bowl over (not in) a pan of simmering water and beat for 1 minute with an electric beater (or by hand if you dare). Remove the bowl from the heat and continue to beat on high speed for about 20 minutes. Gently melt the butter. Skim off the white froth. Sift the flour over the sugar-egg mixture. Fold in, then add the vanilla sugar and warm butter. Cover a jelly roll pan with parchment paper. Spread the batter evenly over top with a spatula. Bake at 220° C (425° F) for 8 to 10 minutes. Remove the sponge from the oven and carefully remove the cake from the parchment paper by moistening the paper with a brush dipped in water. Cover it with a clean tea towel until it has cooled. For the buttercream: 250 g (9 oz.) sugar cooked to soft ball stage, 8 egg yolks, 250 g (9 oz.) butter. While the sponge is baking make the buttercream. Cook the sugar with 100 ml (6 tbsp.) of water until it forms a soft ball (about ten minutes, or until some of the syrup dropped into a bowl of cold water forms a ball.) Whisk the egg yolks in a bowl, pour in the hot sugar syrup, beating constantly for two minutes. Continue to beat with an electric mixer for about 10 minutes before adding in the butter, piece by piece.
Spread three-quarters of the buttercream over the sponge cake. Roll the cake up tightly. Decorate the log with the remaining buttercream. Draw the tines of a fork down the log to create the look of bark. Decorate as desired. Refrigerate for at least two hours to set it then you can display your labor of love to all and sundry!
Mulled wine, anyone? Here's a quick recipe. You need not purchase a pricy bottle of wine for this. Ordinary table wine will do as it is slowly simmering with some nice spices. I sometimes add a dash of Cointreau or Grand Marnier if I have it. Double up spices with each bottle added. The following is for 1 bottle of red: you will need 2 tablespoons brown sugar, a whole orange, 1 apple, 1 cinnamon stick, 2 star anis, 6 cracked cardamon pods, a dozen whole black peppercorns. And a cup of water!
Peel the orange and the apple. Put the peel and all other ingredients but the wine into a stainless steel pot with the water, and warm gently for 10 minutes. Do not boil. Add in the wine and simmer for 15 to 20 minutes (tops) to steep the flavors in. Serve warm.