The 13 Desserts of a Provençal Christmas
While in most of France, folks celebrate the end of the Christmas meal with a Buche de Noël, a cake in the shape of a Yule Log, in Provence, locals opt instead for les treize desserts, an aptly named combination of a whopping thirteen different local delicacies to concude the Christmas Eve feast.
While this tradition may seem like a lofty one, les treize desserts are deceptively easy to prepare. Rather than thirteen cakes, pies, or puddings, les treize are mostly made up of far simpler fare: nuts, dried fruits, and local candies.
This tradition goes back centuries, in Provence, where locals have long enjoyed a laundry list of fruits, nuts, and cakes on Christmas Eve; the number thirteen, it seems, was only imposed in the 1920s, an amalgam, perhaps, of a tradtiton of baking thirteen small loaves of bread (representing Jesus and the twelve apostles) and this panoply of all-natural local sweets.
The difficut part of assembling les treize desserts, then, isn't in their preparation, but merely in choosing which to include. Despite attempts to codify the thirteen in some way, the reality is that each family assembles its own selection, influenced by geography, availability, budget, and personal choice.
Make Your Own Treize Desserts
While flexibility and creativity are encouraged in assembling les treize, there are a few guidelines. The most traditional way to prepare this sweet Provençal feast is the following:
Start with four fresh fruits from the following: oranges, mandarins, apples, pears, white grapes, and honeydew melon.
Add three local candies, like white nougat, black nougat, marzipan, homemade jam, or calissons d'Aix.
Finish with five dried fruits or nuts from the following: raisins, dried apricots, figs, hazelnuts, dates, almonds, or walnuts.
Of these items, four of the foods are incredibly common due to their symbolism of the Four Mendicant Orders — four religious orders having taken vows of poverty. These are almonds (representing the bare-footed Carmes monks), figs (for the Franciscans), raisins (the Dominicans), and walnuts or hazelnuts (the Augustins). While this is perhaps the most overtly Catholic part of the tradition, you don't need to be religious to take part. In fact, other Mediterranean societies have long concluded winter meals with local sweets, including the ancient Greeks, who enjoyed almonds, hazelnuts, prunes, and chestnuts on the winter solstice, or Sephardic Jewish people, whose Rosh Hashanah traditions may incude figs, almonds, grapes, and nougat.
"Since this falls into the 'fun' category of religious traditions, people might do it for religious reasons but it's not a must!" says Rosa Jackson, founder of Nice's Les Petits Farçis cooking school and teacher of a course guiding people through the assembly of les treize desserts. "This is one of the food traditions that distinguishes the south of France from the rest of the country, and people are conscious (and proud) of that."
"These days, I don't think many people would be able to tell you the symbolic meaning of each fruit or nut," she continues, "but all of these sweets are readily available at this time of year, so it's natural to include them."
If you've been paying attention, you may have noticed there's one last item missing. In addition to the twelve fruits and nuts, les Provençaux serve up one more sweet — a cake — to conclude the Christmas meal.
The most common of cakes to join the fruit and nut selectiton is a pompe à l'huile, a simple cake made with local olive oil and orange blossom water. Rather plain on its own, it is often dipped into sweet wine or the juices from preserved fruit to add even more flavor. Above all, the cake is never cut.
"You are supposed to break it by hand," explains Jackson, "as cutting is thought to lead to a year of poverty."
A Contemporary Spin
Locally, Les Treize Desserts is perceived by some to be an old-fashioned tradition, says Jackson. Some opt instead for the bûche enjoyed in other regions of France. But still others put a contemporary spin on an old tradition.
It's easy to customize les treize to fit where you're from! One fun way to bring this Provençal tradition home is to adapt it to what's locally available in your region. In Florida, fresh local oranges can join the party; Georgians may want to open a jar of homemade ginger-peach jam. Choosing the freshest ingredients available to you will help you stay in the spirit of this tradition thousands of miles away.
For a complete holiday meal, check out a traditional French Christmas Menu. And don't miss our collection of French Recipes.