Les Treize Desserts de Noël, or the thirteen desserts of Christmas are a tradition in Provence. They are enjoyed after le gros souper – the big supper. These thirteen desserts represent Jesus and his twelve apostles at the Last Supper.
There must always be thirteen desserts, but the composition varies greatly from village to village. However, they will always be served at the same time, on the same table and each guest must have at least a small taste of each dessert. The food traditionally is set out on Christmas Eve and remains for three days until December 27th. This allows the family to nibble as they pass the table.
Thirteen desserts sounds like gastronomic overload, but as you’ll see, they are actually very healthy.
The Thirteen Desserts
The first four are “les quartre mendiants”. These four beggars represent monastic communities: walnuts or hazelnuts symbolizing the order of St Augustin, almonds for the Carmelites, raisins for the Dominicans, and dry figs for the Franciscans.
And then there is fougasse or pompe à l’huile. This is an olive oil flatbread eaten with grape jam made during the last harvest season. The tradition is to break the bread into individual servings with the fingers, rather than cut the bread with a knife. This is said to protect your wealth from bankruptcy in the coming year.
Two nougats are next. White symbolises good (made with pine nuts, pistachio and hazelnuts) and black nougat for evil (made with caramelized honey cooked with almonds).
So that makes seven so far. The rest can vary considerably according to the region, but they could include:
- Dates (perhaps stuffed with marzipan) representing the foods of the region where Christ lived and died
- Dried plums from Brignoles
- Calisson d’aix en Provence – a marzipan-like candy made from almond paste and candied melon
- Quince fruit paste or jam
- Candied melons
- Casse-dents of Allauch – a biscuit
- Cumin and fennel seed biscuits
- Fried bugnes
- Pain d’epice
- Fruit tourtes
- Oreillettes – light thin waffles
And finally, a platter of fresh seasonal fruit usually counts as one dessert, and is always served. It can be a selection of oranges (a sign of wealth), apples, pears, Christmas melon, plums and grapes.
What a treat! However, for les enfants, there is a catch. In some households, the children are not able to start eating until they’re able to name all thirteen desserts of Christmas on display.