November 18, 2008

This month's feature: French Christmas Traditions

Bonjour et bienvenue to La Marmite, a monthly newsletter devoted to French food and fun. As always, feel free to Contact Me with any questions or suggestions. Merci!

In this issue, you'll find featured:

  • The 13 Desserts: The traditional finish to a French Provencal Christmas dinner.
  • Pompe a Huile: A recipe for the star of the show, an olive oil brioche.
  • French Holiday Decorating: Some ideas for decorating your house in French style.
  • Apples for Mom

The 13 Desserts

In general French people have their big holiday meal on the 24th of December, and it is at this time that families will gather and exchange presents. In the south of France, known as Provence, the meal is called le gros souper and many times precedes a trip to the church for midnight mass.

At the end of the big meal, a lavish display of desserts will appear upon the table. The exact composition of the desserts might vary somewhat from household to household, but the the number is always 13, said to represent Jesus and the 12 apostles. Years ago, this display was actually 12 small loaves of bread and one larger one. But things have gradually become more grandiose and the small loaves of bread have been replaced with various delicacies, leaving just the larger one as the center of the show.

Here is a list of what might be offered:

  • Hazelnuts, almonds, raisins and dried figs - These first four desserts are called les quatre mendiants and are said to represent the four Christian monastic orders: the Augustins, the Carmelites, the Dominicans, and the Franciscans.
  • Dates
  • Fresh fruit including apples, pears and clementines.
  • White nougat - said to recall happy times, and black nougat - for the sad times.
  • Various candied fruits and jellies. Calissons, a lovely French candy, are frequently served. You can learn more about calissons and other French candy here.
  • A Pompe a l'huile is most often served as the showcase dessert. This is a sweet yeast-bread made with olive oil and many times flavored with orange flower water.

The desserts will be served with hot mulled wine (vin chaud) to help you on your way, because you are expected to at least taste each of the 13 delicacies.

Pompe a L'Huile Recipe

If you know a little French, then maybe you've figured out that pompe a huile means oil pump. What a name for a dessert! It is traditionally made with olive oil and orange flower water and is always served by tearing off pieces. (Cutting it with a knife is said to bring bad luck). It is not a real sweet dessert and you might enjoy it just as well for Christmas breakfast.

  • 1 cup warm water
  • 2 packages of yeast
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 2/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons orange flower water
  • 3 1/2 to 4 cups all purpose flour

Dissolve the yeast in the warm water. Stir in the sugar, olive oil, egg, salt and orange flower water. Stir in 2 cups of the flour and mix well. Add the next 1 1/2 cups flour, 1/2 cup at a time to form a stiff dough.

Knead the dough for five to ten minutes until smooth, adding the final 1/2 cup flour as needed to keep it from sticking. Place the kneaded dough in a lightly oiled bowl and cover with a clean dish towel. Allow dough to rise until double in size - about two hours.

Punch dough down and spread in a large oval shape on a greased baking sheet. The dough should be about 1/2 inch thick all around. Using a knife, cut seven large slits in the dough and separate them into seven holes each several inches wide (without tearing through to the edges of the bread). Allow dough to rise another hour.

Bake in 375 degrees Fahrenheit oven for 15 to 20 minutes.

French Holiday Decorating

You and the French probably already decorate in similar ways for the holidays. Most families will decorate a tree, called le sapin de Noel (not l'arbre de Noel, as I am forever calling it and being stared at dumbly as a result). What goes on the tree is really up to each person's creativity, but the French do like red ribbons and little white candles.

Here are a few decorating ideas that are popular in France that you might like to borrow from when decorating your house.

The Creche

In many homes, you will find a nativity scene known as the creche as part of the Christmas celebration. These range from the very simple to elaborate affairs with lights, candles, music and even running water! I have seen people devote an entire corner of their living room to a beautiful and creative creche scene.

Most towns will also have a nativity scene put up for Christmas, perhaps in the town square or near city hall. Many businesses will have one as well, and there are even competitions for the best nativity scene. One charming aspect to all of these creches is that it is only on Christmas day that the baby Jesus is added to the nativity scene.


The French love to decorate with candles for Christmas. The nativity scenes will most times be lit with candles and lighting the room with dozens of candles is a quick and easy way to add a festive mood to any occasion.

Many families in France make a wreath, known as the couronne, which lies flat on the table and holds four red candles. The first candle is lit on the first day of Advent, or the fourth Sunday before Christmas day. Each subsequent Sunday another candle is lit. The four candles are said to represent the four seasons, the four cardinal points, or hope, love, joy and peace. You pick. Oftentimes a prayer will be said with the lighting of each candle.

Shoes, not Stockings

You've probably seen pictures of clogs, known as sabots here in France, filled with goodies. In many European countries, instead of hanging a stocking in the hopes of Christmas treats, the kids leave out their shoes on Christmas eve. (I do have to admit though, that although nearly all of our Christmases have been in France, Santa Claus has always left his treats in the kids' stockings. Something about our smelly sneakers just doesn't work for him chez nous.)

Apples for Mom

I asked for suggestions for topics for this newsletter and my Mom was the first to take me up on it with the idea of apples. Although most people eat apples all year round, the harvesting of apples is in the fall, which makes this a perfect time to enjoy them for those of us in the northern hemisphere. Here in France, apples are grown in Normandy (where they are used to make Calvados and apple cider) and in the south. Some of the more common varieties in France are:

  • Braeburn - A crisp, juicy and pleasantly tart apple that stores well.
  • Golden Delicious - This comes to us from the US.
  • Granny Smith - The French favor this one for cooking.
  • Idared - Another apple from America. Recommended for use in recipes that call for pan frying apples.
  • Pink Lady - My personal favorite.
  • Royal Gala - From New Zealand. Good for eating out of hand as well as cooking.

Are you ready to try some of these great apples in a recipe? If you want your house to smell divine, try my favorite recipe for baked apples, called Pommes Bonne Femmes. And here's a fun French apple tart that comes with a charming story to tell as you are serving it.

Next Issue

Thanks so much for spending some time with me. In the next issue, due out on December 17th, you can learn about the special foods the French enjoy on New Year's Eve and some fun French remedies for the day after.

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A bientot and remember to enjoy your food!

Your friend in France,


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