The Thirteen Desserts of Provence

From Embrun to Nice, by way of Marseille, every town has its own variation, and sometimes even every family!
By Sarah-Carrière Chardon

"No, bugnes, are for Candlemas!…" With that, I am dismissed from the Saint Victor bakery! And yet their orange flower scent still embalms my childhood memories. Clearly, we don’t all have the same ones...The origin of the Thirteen Desserts seems to be part of the tradition of opulence in the Mediterranean regions. Combined with the religious element, this tradition gave the Christmas season its festive character well before gifts inundated households. Upon return from Mass, the table was set with three tablecloths representing the Holy Trinity, upon which the Thirteen Desserts were set. Based on the symbolism of the Last Supper, with Jesus surrounded by his Apostles, tradition forbids seating 13 people at the dinner table… but the rule doesn’t apply to food! Out of this Provençal tradition, we have ended up with a few mainstays and a thousand and one local adaptation. The Pompe à l'huile (olive oil brioche), or la Pompo, becomes a Gibassié when it’s sprinkled with sugar and broken into pieces as Christ broke the bread. Li Pachichoi, or the four beggars, are four dried fruits and nuts symbolizing the religious orders: hazelnuts for the Augustinians, figs for the Franciscans, raisins for the Dominicans and almonds for the Carmelites. The nougat of the Capuchins, ancestor of the fruity delicacy, is a fig stuffed with walnuts. Then the date joins the party—you must find the "O" on its pit that Mary or the Baby Jesus (according to the different versions of the story) supposedly exclaimed at the sight of this fruit. Aside from the Christian theme, there are the white and black nougats that mark the passage to the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Finally, there are the fresh fruits: the precious oranges of our forebears, the mandarins and clementines from Corsica, the apples and pears from the Alps and the Verdau (green) melon that is preserved in straw all winter long. Finally in Apt, there are the preserved fruits, in Aix, the calisson biscuits, in Marseille the navettes and the croquants, the almond pastes in Nice and the bugnes in the Alps of Haute-Provence! These days, we no longer necessarily wait until midnight to enjoy the Thirteen Desserts. Designers also revisit the theme: last year, Christian Lacroix created a bûche (yule log cake) in jewel box forms for Lenôtre, while this year, Quentin Bailly of "Un Dimanche à Paris" has created a couronne (crown) cake that evokes another Provençal tradition, the couronne des rois (Kings’ Crown). At the market in the neighborhood of Saint Victor, between the “Four des Navettes,” the “Pâtisserie de Saint Victor” and the “Clef des Champs,” you’ll find everything except bugnes! For those who prefer shopping online, the mythic “Compagnie Alimentaire,” Provençal specialist in dried fruits since 1922, has just opened their “Esprit Gourmand” site so that private customers can have access to the same products as top chefs. Finally, for those who can’t resist a market stall, don’t miss the "Marché des 13 desserts" in Aix-en-Provence from December 19th-24th.

Thriteen Desserts of Provence
Thriteen Desserts of Provence
Christmas in Provence
Photography Laure Mélone