The 13 Desserts of Provence

It’s not quite “The Bleak Midwinter” of the carol but the sunshine and the pure blue skies of Provence are calling. Two solutions to this: hop on a plane or recreate a little bit of Provence here. The second alternative is the easiest and the cheapest too and saves the hassle of travelling when everybody is doing so.

By far the most exciting part of the Christmas menus is the making of the Treize Desserts. (The number 13 refers to Jesus Christ and the 12 apostles at the Last Supper).

When people hear of this number of desserts, they think we are very greedy indeed. Not so, but instead of making a Christmas pudding and a Christmas cake, I prefer to keep to the beautiful traditions of Provence. We still eat the pudding and the cake, but I don’t make them.

There is no question of embarking on the preparation of something difficult, although it is a little time-consuming. It is still a pleasure as the whole family can join in the making of these little sweets. Normally they are consumed after the Gros Souper (Big Supper) which is eaten before going to the Midnight Mass. We eat them over the 12 Days of Christmas, and replenish them almost daily, depending on the sweet tooth of the family and guests.

I had started with the Pâte de Coing (Quince fruit Jelly) in November and made a slight variation with Quince and Apple fruit Jelly. Another jelly followed : gooseberry fruit jelly, the fruit being the only ones rescued from the onslaught of the pigeons on our fruit trees last Summer. Recipes follow.

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Then the dates, prunes and walnuts with a marzipan stuffing.  Again, something easy  and pleasant to nibble on with a glass of champagne or liqueur. Recipes to follow.

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The 2 nougats: the white and the black which are the symbols of good and evil,and the nougalettes, not made by me but by the marvellous confiseur in the little village of Saint Didier, in the Lubéron, who has the expertise I do not have. The calissons, also made by the same confiseur. I owe the discovery of the nougalettes to a much loved aunt who used to send us a big parcel of Provençal delicacies so that we could enjoy a traditional celebration of Christmas when we were not able to be in Provence.

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This year there was not enough time to do my own orangettes (candied orange peel coated in dark chocolate), so they were also bought and travelled from Paris.

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Then follow the 3 Mendiants (beggars): walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. Great as they only require cracking and are very healthy.

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 To counteract the effects of sugar, the truly organic mandarines with their shiny green leaves flew all the way from Corsica via Paris but tphoto 1-11he Corinth raisins did not fly in from Corinth! (at least not especially for us).

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The last addition which requires no preparation on my part are the Fruits Confits (candied fruit), another speciality from Provence where the fruit ripen naturally in the sunshine, which include the “marrons glacés” (candied chestnuts).

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Another attraction of these 13 Desserts is that they are also offered to visitors, together with a glass of liqueur and it is lovely to go back to the dining room from time to time and fill a little plate with various bite-sized delicacies.

I am told that my maths are not great as our 13 Desserts usually exceed this number.To this, I can only only say that one needs to refer to the title of this blog.

So, will we be hitting the gym because of these traditions? The dreaded electronic scales will deliver the answer, but usually, the overindulgence is still kind to the waistline.


Pâte de Coing or Quince Fruit Jelly

November has brought another fruit which can not be eaten raw but which signals the preparations for Christmas. It looks like a big pear and when cooked turns a beautiful colour, semi pink or light brown. I am making Quince Jelly. This is one of the 13 traditional desserts in Provence and its origin is probably found in the fact that the fruit was ripe in November and it was cheap to make another simple dessert for the Big Supper of Christmas Eve. It remains a delicacy and the aroma of the cooking quince fills the kitchen with childhood memories. Rather than preserving the fruit by making jam, this is another way of enjoying it. In spite of the sugar needed, it is very healthy as it does not contain any colouring or preservative. In Spain it is served with strong cheeses to create a balance of savours. You need: 1 quince Juice of 1 lemon Preserving sugar A pressure cooker ( if you don’t have one, use a saucepan but it will take much longer to cook the fruit as it has a dense flesh). 1. Rinse and peel the quince. Core and quarter it and put it in a pressure cooker with just enough water to cover it. Quince vary in size and it is difficult to say exactly how much water will be needed. 2. After 5 minutes under pressure, the fruit should be soft enough. Open the pressure cooker and check. If you cook it in a saucepan, it may take up to 40 minutes. 3. Whizz with a liquidizer and measure the mixture in a measuring jug. For 500 ml of mixture add 500g of sugar. The quantity of sugar has to be equal to the quantity of fruit mixture. 4. Put the mixture in the pressure cooker without the lid or in a jam making pan and add the lemon juice. 5. Bring to a fast boil for 6 or 7 minutes, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. 6. Check that setting point is reached and pour in a large Pyrex dish, making sure that the thickness of the jelly does not exceed 2 cms. Let it cool and leave in the fridge for 2 days. Then, remove it delicately and place it on greaseproof paper to dry in a cool, dark place. The longer you leave it to dry, the firmer the “pâte” will be. Turn the quince fruit jelly every 2 days to allow even drying. 7. Cut it into thick fingers or lozenges and cover with caster sugar. 8. Keep it in a biscuit tin until Christmas Eve or before if you can not resist eating it. Enjoy!