Les Treize Desserts de Noël

The Thirteen Desserts of Christmas

Christmas, or Calena, in Nice is celebrated with a rich variety of rituals. It all starts on the fourth of December, when children place wheat and lentils in saucers and cover them with a little cotton wool so that they will sprout. The budding green is used for the Créche.

Displayed in the Créche are santons: little hand-painted clay figurines representing the most characteristic of Provençal villagers. There is the fish vendor with a large, flat basket of sardines on each arm, the miller carrying a bag of flour, the wine merchant with a barrel of wine on his shoulder, the simpleton, ravi, with his dried cod, the housewife with a full mortar of aїoli, the baker and his pompe à l’huile, the hunter carrying rabbits and a hare, the shepherd with a white lamb on his shoulder, and the old peasant women dressed in black and wearing shawls, the chair-cane weaver, the knife grinder. Curiously, there is also a drummer, a postman, and a mayor.

A week before Calena, all the santons are unpacked and placed on a mantelpiece, a chest of drawers, or a table. Rocky hills (brown wrapping paper), green meadows (the wheat and lentil sprouts), and snowy lanes (flour) create the setting. The little stable with Jesus, Mary, and Joseph in it is put in, and then, from all sides come the villagers, dressed in nineteenth-century Provençal costumes.

The theaters during that week play little pastorals (presepi) in which all the characters of the Crèche take part: the gossipy linen washer, Tanta Giana, the Bastian Countrari (a sort of Mary contrary), Don Boutifa, the greedy monk, and many others.

Decorations in the streets are minimal and food is the most colorful part of Christmas in Nice. On Christmas Eve the gros souper or souper maigre takes place. It is gros (big) because it is a celebration of all the good things we are thankful for and because it is an important family affair; it is maigre (lean) for religious reasons—no meat is allowed.

Before the meal begins, the master of the house places in the fireplace a log (usually taken from a fruit tree) kept from the previous Christmas. He adds some pine cones and vine branches. Surrounded by all the guests, he lights the fire, dips a branch of celery in a glass of vin cuit and sprinkles the fire with it. The guests sip the wine as the glass is passed around.

The table is set with three white tablecloths. A large candle is brought to the table and throughout the meal everyone—from the youngest to the oldest member of the family—takes turns blowing it out and lighting it again.

The gros souper may begin with aїgo bouido, the light garlic and herb broth, or with raw celery dipped in an anchoïade sauce. Then there might be little gray snails or dried cod cooked in raїto or served with aїoli. A warm vegetable salad will follow—either cauliflower or chickpeas or lentils. Lean ravioli made with vegetables or tians of vegetables will come next. A crisp green salad, either endives or celery, follow, along with garlicky chapons seasoned with newly pressed olive oil.

The meal is long but is composed only of healthy natural foods and it ends with the traditional treize desserts, presented on a large tray or in little earthenware bowls.

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Ingredients

Fresh Fruits

  • pale oranges from Nice
  • tangerines
  • wintermelon (carefully turned to ripen evenly in the cellar since the autumn)
  • pears
  • apples
  • pomegranates

Dried Fruits

  • grapes that have been hung since the autumn and are wrinkled and sweet, almost like honey
  • figs, dried first in the sun, then kept indoors on screens and then between peach-tree and bay leaves
  • hazelnuts
  • almonds, both the soft sweet kind and the hard-shelled bitter ones
  • walnuts
  • dates en branche, from Africa, candied on their branches

Sweets

  • calissons d’Aix, made with candied fruits and almonds
  • fruit tourtes
  • black and white nougats
  • quince paste (pâte de coing)
  • candied fruits
  • pompes à l’huile, a sweet cake enriched with orange blossom water and olive oil

Method

The guests nibble on the thirteen desserts, sip the sweet vin cuit (prepared in the fall), gather around the Crèche and sing while waiting for midnight mass.

Before leaving for church, the lady of the house places some of the thirteen desserts on a clean tablecloth ready for neighbors, beggars, or even the souls of ancestors to taste while she is at church. She then pours the leftover wine on the fire, removes the log, wraps it, and places it in a closet for the following Christmas.

Back from the mass the children are put to bed. Their shoes—here it is shoes and not stockings that Father Christmas fills—are stuffed with oranges, dates, and sweets of all kinds.

Then the grownups sit down for the réveillon. It can be either a small snack taken before going back to one’s home or a large elaborate affair—boudin blanc, foie gras, and other delicacies—lasting until dawn.

Traditionally on Christmas Day the godfather brings his godson a cake in the shape of a rooster, and his goddaughter a cake in the shape of a doll. The meal is also a family gathering; it often starts with chopped turkey heart and kidneys sautéed with olive oil, celery, and black olives. Then comes the turkey or the goose, filled with chestnuts and ham, followed by a tart endive salad seasońed with newly pressed olive oil. There may be a large tray of goat’s cheese—creamy ones and little dry ones set on leaves. And finally, some of the thirteen desserts left over from the previous night. It ends with homemade liquors—ratafia, liqueur de coings —and songs.