Les Treize: a Christmas dessert from Provence Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Les Treize: a Christmas dessert from Provence

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The Christmas dish known as 'Les Treize'

Traditional Christmas desserts such as plum pudding aren't always to everyone's taste, and after a large meal sometimes a lighter option to nibble on is preferred.

In Provence, in the south of France, there are many interesting Christmas traditions, such as driving the prettiest sheep to church on Christmas Eve (le pastrage). The traditional dessert served is Les Treize, meaning the 13, representing Christ and his 12 disciples. Depending on family tradition, it can be eaten either before or after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The table should be set with three candles, for the Trinity, and an extra space should be laid for one's ancestors. Everyone at the table should try at least a little of each dessert.

Each household has its own variations on which 13 tasty morsels they serve, and there is no definitive list, but there are some categories common to all versions.

  • A special bread, fougasse, or pompe a l'huile, baked with olive oil, is always served. Sometimes it is flavoured with orange water. It must be torn, not cut with a knife, to bring good fortune in the new year.
  • Les Quatres Mendiants - the beggars. Representing the four mendicant monastic orders, dried fruit and nuts of colours resembling their robes are served. These are usually raisins for the Dominicans, almonds for the Carmelites, hazelnuts or walnuts for the Augustinians and figs for the Franciscans.
  • Light and dark fudge or nougat, representing good and evil.
  • Fresh fruit - oranges symbolise wealth in the coming year, and melon is frequently served.
  • Dates stuffed with marzipan. The dates represent Joseph and Mary's safe journey from the East.
  • Quince paste, or other jam or preserve made from local seasonal fruit.
  • In recent years, a yule log has made its way into the 13.

To accompany the meal, vin cuit, representing Christ himself, should be served. This is not, as the name might suggest, mulled wine, but a fortified drink created during the wine making process. A fortified wine such as sherry could be used as an alternative.

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