Christmas traditions in France, no surprise, revolves around food from Buche de Noel to Calvados punch with six-hour monumental meals.
I am always recall back to the very first of Peter Mayle’s books, A Year in Provence, describing his very first New Year’s Day symphony lunch at Chez Raymond – six courses, plus more and more. Then their first Christmas list of the supplies needed for Christmas Eve like oysters, scallops, smoked salmon, pheasants, capons, pates, ham, cheeses, and gateaux. The towns throughout Provence transform every December with warm holiday cheer. The Marchés de Noël usually in make-shift huts are full of charm, homemade crafts, ornaments, mulled wine, tastes of regional specialties cheeses, gingerbread and of course, sausages in every flavor especially wild boar this time of year.
It is during the Gros Souper when the table groans on Christmas Eve, families set up a table with three white tablecloths and three white candles – representing the holy trinity. The meal is held before midnight mass and consists of six courses, traditionally seafood like oysters and scallops, a roasted pheasant or Capon along with the trimmings. Spending many hours at the table with family and friends is normal.
After returning from mass, it is time for the famous thirteen desserts. Representing Jesus and the 12 disciples, these treats fall into four categories: dried fruit and nuts to include white nougat, Provence's famous crystalized fruit, fresh fruit, and gateaux. Les Treize Desserts de Noel goes back centuries, varying from town to town and family to family, but there are always ‘four beggars’ in some forms are there: walnuts or hazelnuts for the St Augustin's. Almonds for the Carmelites; raisins for the Dominicans and dried figs for the Franciscians. And there should always be an olive oil fougasse to protect the family's finances of the coming New Year.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the Bûche de Noël, this is one of the oldest French Christmas traditions. It dates back to Celtic times even before Christmas in France was celebrated. The earliest bûche de Noël in France can be traced to Celtic Brittany. A log was lit at the winter Solstice ceremony honoring the sun. On this shortest day of the year, the Celts would search for a large trunk of oak, beech, elm or cherry and burn it as a symbol of rebirth of the sun. During the Middle Ages, the ceremony of burning logs became more detailed. The logs themselves would be decorated with ribbons and greenery. Then the youngest and the oldest member of each family would carry the log to the hearth and set it in flames that will burn for the whole night. The vestiges would be collected the next day, to be used throughout the year.
It was thought that these logs helped cure various sicknesses and protect the house from the wickedness of the evil spirit. In Provence, the charred remains of last year’s bûche was re-laid on the hearth and lighted. The family gathered round and recited a prayer. With time, the practice changed, and people started representing the practice with a log-shaped cake that was served as dessert to the guests.
Traditionally, many wines have always played an important role in Provencal Christmas celebrations. But there is a special 'sunset wine' inspired by Christmas heritage in Provence. Today, this wine is recognized as a spirit that brings together contemporary and traditional flavors. After discovering L’Ambre at Chateau Virant, I was told it was the perfect drink to go with the 13 desserts, right then I was intrigued. I was told by the family that this ancestral wine is presented to those gathered around the table, as a symbol to ward off fate and bring joy to the home in the coming New Year. To make this festive drink, they reduce the grape juice of Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan in a copper cauldron for several days under careful supervision. The wine is made according to an old Provençal recipe. At Chateau Virant they cook the grape juice in the cauldron in the middle of the wine cellar, the slow heat prompts a slow and careful reduction. Once the cooking is completed, the juices are transferred to vats where fermentation occurs. After aging for two years in oak barrels, the Provence sunset wine will achieve its powerful, complex aromas. Its brown color with golden ruby reflections and its lemony notes with aromas of stewed fruit and quince make this wine a favorite. For me I paired it with Foie Gras and it was heaven!
With delicious cuisine, enchanting traditions, and festive markets, Provence certainly knows how to celebrate the Christmas season! You should be there.