13 Ways to Celebrate Christmas

 Madame Renoir pulled out a tray full of Calisson d’Aix cookies. “I have much still from the réveillon,” she said, indicating the pale oval cookies. “You are familiar, yes?”

Maggie nodded. “The réveillon. That’s the thirteen desserts, right? The ones everyone eats on Christmas Eve?”

Exactement. Before the Mass. They symbolize Christ and his apostles. It is a Provençal tradition.”

“I see you’ve got a lot left over.”

Madame Renoir placed the tray of iced cookies on the counter. “The people of St-Buvard care little for traditions,” she said, frowning. “They will eat the cookies for the…little snacks, yes? Not for the purpose I am baking them. You understand?”

—-Excerpt from “Murder à la Carte

If you’re from Louisiana, you’ve likely heard of a French tradition that happens at Christmastime called the réveillon, which is a long dinner, or sometimes a party, held on Christmas Eve after midnight mass. The word réveil means “waking” which is appropriate since the dinner involves staying awake until midnight…and beyond. The reason you might have heard of this tradition in the States is because it’s still observed in New Orleans at various restaurants that offer special réveillon menus on Christmas Eve.

36849922In Provence, the réveillon is seven separate courses plus thirteen different desserts, which is totally my kind of tradition. Some sources say  les enfants are not allowed to have a single bite of dessert until they can name each one correctly. The number thirteen has to do with the number of apostles plus Jesus at the Last Supper. (The réveillon is also connected to Easter with some folks saying the Christmas Eve feast is a lead up to Mardi Gras before nose-diving into Lent and, traditionally, fasting and sacrifice.)

I loved using the réveillon in the Maggie Newberry mystery, above, first because one of the main characters in that book was a baker and the timing was Christmas. It would have been weird, especially in a small rural village, not to mention the réveillon. Besides, the tradition is so layered and visual, it was a delight to describe it and so, experience it.

Okay, what are these essential thirteen desserts that kick off Christmas and take us all the way to Easter?

Voilà mes amis, I give you, the réveillon!

  1. The pompe à l’huile is a flat bread flavored with orange blossom and brown sugar. (Some people believe cutting the bread (as opposed to breaking it as Jesus did at the Last Supper) brings the risk of bankruptcy in the new year. So watch yourself.
  2. Two kinds of nougats, white and black, representing good and evil.
  3. Hazelnuts which represent St. Augustin
  4. Almonds, representing the Carmelite Order
  5. Raisins for the Dominican order
  6. Dry figs representing the Franciscan Order
  7. Candied citron representing I honestly do not know what.
  8. Quince paste I assume one may get creative with this since all by itself it doesn’t feel like much of a dessert to me.)
  9. Pears
  10. Apples
  11. Oranges
  12. Dates
  13. Calisson d’Aix (this is a Provençal favorite any time of the year but I always send away for it at Christmas. It’s made of ground almond paste that’s been extruded into petal shaped cookies and frosted with royal icing.)

As you can imagine nowadays, people add many more desserts to this list to celebrate the réveillon. (I mean, come on, apples as a dessert? Where’s the buche de Noel?) But, however you celebrate your holidays, I hope there’s lots of good food and even more loved ones crowded around your table.

Joyeux Noel everyone!

 

Vive la France…where food meets style

In excited anticipation of my upcoming Provençal research trip, I’m going through my cookbooks and scanning favorite recipes to be uploaded to my iPad. I expect to live in the daily food markets in Aix and environs and–if just for a few weeks–live the life I write about and love.

I  stumbled across a recent article that said the French were annoyed because there was a grass roots movement to close some McDonald’s restaurants in France. And while granted, if you read the piece you’ll see that their Mickey D’s are nothing like ours, it was still a shock.

IMG_4348I hate to think that our American way of eating is leeching across the Atlantic to the land of food and style, but there are some things that seem to be the same no matter where you live and the combination of holding down a job and raising a family while attempting to bring good nutrition (and taste!) into the equation seems to be one of them.

I don’t think it’s  impossible to eat healthily and work full time, but it’s hard. That’s because here in the States our “convenience” foods—frozen processed foods and snack-packs (which tend to be tasteless and generally bad for you) are often the only things we have time to “make.”

I mean, really! Doesn’t preparing, then cleaning up after evening meals (if you bother to do it before slumping  in front of the TV set) wear you out? You work hard all day and then there’s all that chopping and prepping in order to put out a seasoned, cooked piece of meat—hopefully with some kind of sauce on it—a vegetable (better make it two, we didn’t get anywhere near our quota of fruits & veggies today), a salad, a starch (rice or risotto—both of which take at least forty minutes to cook), a piece of bread or a roll to help move it all around the plate with, and something to drink. And it’s all eaten in less time than it takes to change the channel.IMG_3209
If you have  a full time job, any kids at all, and maybe a spouse  who expects your occasional participation in his/her life AND you have the least desire to stay up with current events, friends, extended family, a clean house, and keeping your family’s shirts and shorts laundered, not to mention possibly writing a chapter in your latest murder mystery, you will be, without question, no two-ways-about-it, totally crunched for time all of the time.

I  love to cook  my family’s favorites: cassoulet, chicken and dumplings, etc. But if I do it on a weeknight, I end up agitated and grumpy—if I’m able to pull it off at all. So I reserve the creative cooking for the weekend when I have a little extra time (in between soccer games, birthday parties, church, and yard work!) and during the week I take a page from how the French dine when they dine simply and perfectly.
30770518It doesn’t take an elaborate morney sauce or a counterful of mise-en-place bowls to make an exquisite, satisfying meal, (and I’m not leading up to take-out here). Sometimes the simplest meals are the best. If you can get your hands on really good tomatoes, for example, you needn’t do any actual cooking.

The French can do wonderful things with a cold plate of pickles, a little pâté and a hunk of fresh bread. It takes seconds to assemble. (Be sure and give everything a finishing drizzle of your best quality olive oil.) Set a pretty table, open a decent rosé wine and voila! Nothing simpler.
Come to that, it’s hard to beat a good couple of cheeses (say a Brie or Gouda with a blue cheese, varying the hard and soft cheeses) with a salad, fresh bread and maybe a simple tapenade.  All of which you just pull out of the fridge and put on a plate.

Now, if you want to do a little something ahead of time—say, on the weekend when you have all that extra time— roast some peppers or shred a bunch of hard cheese or pre-bake some eggplant and store them in the fridge. Then, come Tuesday night, you can get a little jiggy with dinner without spending a lot of time in the kitchen. You’re still just assembling, but some of your ingredients have been pre-assembled.

I guess I hate the thought of anyone longing for McDonald’s–even if they do have McCamemberts instead of Monster Macs–but especially not the French!

At least not until I have one more perfect summer in fantasy land.