Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Christmas in Provence

The other day, about a week before Christmas, the Artist and I took the dogs for a walk in the foothills of  Les Alpilles, a nearby mountain range.  We actually walked further than we meant to; it was a cold but sunny day with blue skies.  Suddenly we heard the sound of bells, I walked on ahead, with The Artist staying behind with the dogs.  There in front of me was a herd of dark brown goats with horns, about 100 or so, and to one side was the goatherd standing with two dogs that looked like scruffy black poodles.  There was also a huge dog, like a great dane, a real hound, pale in colour, who came lolloping up to me to check me out.  I put out my hand to stroke him, but he didn't want to be stroked, he just wanted to know who I was and whether or not I posed a threat.
I talked to the goatherd for a while. 
I said his was quite a different sort of job and he said different from what?  Well, you know, I said, from what most people do.  I asked him if he spent all his time in the hills and whether he lived nearby in a cabane, (a traditional stone cabin you see scattered throughout the hills) he said he did and gestured to somewhere ahead.  He asked me where I was from and made some quip about the rain in England.  He told me that the big dog was there to guard the goats from wolves, I asked him where the wolves were, and he said up in the mountains where they spend the summer and he told me the little dogs were there to herd the goats.  Actually, they hadn't done such a great job, because later we came across a goat on its own, looking rather lost.  
Dogs with Goats in background
On Christmas Eve I thought about the goatherd when I went to the local tourist office to find out which local Church performed a traditional Midnight Mass.  Apparently there are some still conducted in the old Provençal language and include a pastorale,  a living crèche, where people from the town are dressed as Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, and wise men etc. and Provençal carols are sung accompanied by the tambourine and flute.  Also, apparently, at certain churches, they have what is called the "Pastrage" when a shepherd brings in a new born lamb on a cart to be offered as a gift for Jesus, he is accompanied by other shepherds with their ewes.  I wondered if this might have included the goatherd I had encountered.  But I never did find out;  every year I have the intention of going to Midnight Mass but somehow by 11 o'clock, after a few glasses of wine and a few mince pies, I can't quite summon the energy to go out into the cold and I put it off until the next year.

Traditionally, on Christmas Eve families get together and eat Le gros souper, the big supper before going to Church. There is much symbolism attached to the this meal;  it begins with seven different meatless dishes which relate to the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary and finishes with les treizes desserts, the thirteen desserts relating to Jesus and his twelve Apostles.   The dishes are laid on three white table cloths (one on top of the other) between three candle sticks with white candles, symbolizing the Holy Trinity and hope.  I'm not sure how much of the traditions are adhered to, but it does seem that a lot of oysters and seafood are eaten on Christmas Eve and there are booths everywhere selling oysters by the dozen on the side of the road.  That was a tradition I did manage to partake in and jolly good they were too!

Things eaten traditionally on Christmas Eve
  • Soupe de Poisson – Fish Soup
  • Escargots – these can be bought prepared from your Butcher and heated up in the oven. 
  • Cardoon and anchovy gratin
  • Salt Cod with a tomato and wine sauce – Morue en Raito
  • Oysters
  • Green Salad with garlic croutons 
  • Cheese, including Goats cheese
Dessert – Les Treize Desserts -   This is a Provencal tradition, the following are laid out and left on the table to snack on during the festive period

  • Dried figs, almonds, walnuts and raisins, dates, these are known as les Mendiants
  • Two types of Nougat, one dark made with honey and almonds, one white from Montelimar
  • Oranges, tangerines, pears, apples, grapes. The fruit varies and sometimes quince or grape jelly substitute some of the fresh fruits.
  • La Pompe a L’huile – a type of Fougasse (a pastry usually savoury with olives or bacon) made with olive oil, orange flower water and brown sugar. Can be bought at your Boulangerie.
Provence Sunset


Julie Mautner said...

I made it to Midnight Mass in St. Remy one year....the church was FREEZING and my friend Philippe and I had a laughing fit over somethingand had to slip out the back. Still, what I saw and heard of it was just beautiful and I'd like to go again sometime. Happy New Year to both of you!!!

Damaris @Kitchen Corners said...

I had such a good time meeting you at Food Blogger Camp. I hope we can connect again soon, maybe I'll come to France one day or you can come to Brazil.

Sarah said...

I want to try to make a Soupe de Poisson someday! How was New York?! Are you back in France? I was delayed getting back to Vermont....and now am back to work and snow. Bleh. Wish I was still in Mexico!