I live for part of the year on the south coast of France, in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. One of my favourite elements of life in France is the cuisine. In the morning I go to the town for fresh ingredients from the charcuterie and boulangerie and market, and then I come home and prepared traditional French meals. Sometimes we eat at home, on the terrace overlooking the gardens and the sea; sometimes we pack up a picnic and drive into the hills or down to the beach. Occasionally, we indulge in a meal out – the local restaurants serve amazing seafood.
I tend to spend the Christmas period at my home in Kent. Mince pies, carols, candles, fairy lights – there’s a romanticism to the English Christmas that I love. But I do bring back with me a Provencal tradition. It’s called GrosSouper.
On the last day of Advent, Christmas Eve, families in Provence sit for a meal. The meal comprises seven courses, to represent the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. No wonder they call it GrosSouper (Great Supper)! It’s a feast to fill the stomach before midnight mass. The courses are served together, in a buffet, but none contain meat (in accordance with Catholic teachings). Instead, the focus is on fish, snails and vegetables, often with often with aïoli (garlic mayonnaise). Each courses is accompanied by its own wine.
After midnight mass comes the best part of the meal (certainly the one that most delights my family). The dessert is made up of no less than thirteen elements, to represent Jesus and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper. Traditionally, people baked twelve buns and a cross-marked loaf marked. But these days the puddings are more varied:
* Pompe a l’huile: a bread made with olive oil, orange flower water and citrus zest, which is torn apart (cutting with a knife is bad luck)
* White and black nougat (to symbolise good and evil)
* Dried figs, raisins, almonds and hazelnuts (known as the four ‘beggars’ and symbolising the religious orders of the Augustinians,Carmelites, Dominicans and Franciscans)
* Fruits: melon, Picon oranges, grapes, prunes, apples, pears, mandarins
* Local specialities, such as quince paste or dates stuffed with marzipan
* The desserts are served with mulled wine.
For the table setting, three is the magic number. Three white tablecloths. Three white candles. Three saucers of wheat planted on St Barbe’s Day. The three signifies the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost. The family sets an extra place, called le couvert du pauvre, which was traditionally in case a beggar came to the door. The table is not cleared at the end of the meal, but left overnight for the souls of the departed. A perfect reason not to bother with the washing-up!
So there you have it, a Christmas Eve family feast done the Provencal way. While you may not want to adopt the full custom, elements of it are wonderful: the meal together, the meat fast (which makes the turkey the next day taste so much better), and the delicious array of desserts eaten in the early hours of the morning: not sinning, but saintly after mass!
Bon appetit and joyeux Noel!