Provencal table laid for the Great Supper on Christmas EveForget roast turkey and mince pies: Provence has its own very different but equally delicious festive foods and eating traditions at Christmas.

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The Great Supper

The major meal takes place on Chistmas Eve and is the Gros Souper, or Great Supper. For it, the table is cermoniously laid with three white tablecloths, one on top of the other, garnished with three candles and three saucers of the wheat of Saint Barbara, representing the Holy Trinity. In some houses the corners of the tablecloths are knotted - to prevent the devil from climbing up on to the table!

The first part of the meal, eaten before Midnight Mass, consists of seven very plain dishes, symbolising the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary (some stories link it to the seven wounds of Christ). They're all presented at once, in the form of a buffet.

No meat is on the table, but there is likely to be fish such as salt cod, shellfish, snails and vegetables such as cauliflower, cabbage, artichoke and celery, often with an aïoli (garlic mayonnaise sauce). Seven separate wines are served as an accompaniment.

An extra place should be set: le couvert du pauvre. It's either for a beggar who might come to the door or for the souls of dead ancestors. For the same reason, the table should be left uncleared overnight in order for the latter to partake of the feast.

The 13 Desserts

This is followed by the 13 Desserts, served after Midnight Mass and signifying the 13 participants at the Last Supper. Although the tradition of serving a range of desserts is ancient in Provence, the convention of the number 13 is relatively recent - the first record of this practice dates back to the 1920s.

Here too, the exact components can vary, but they generally fall into three categories: mendiants (mendicants), fruit and local sweetmeats.

The 13 Desserts of a provencal Christmas Eve supperThere are always four mendiants, symbolising the religious orders which have taken a vow of poverty: dried figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites, raisins for the Dominicans and walnuts or hazelnuts for the Augustines.

The colours of the nuts or dried fruit are thought to correspond to the colours of the habits of the monks and nuns.

Also key are the two nougats, black and white, symbolising, some say, good and evil. The fruit can encompass all sorts of fresh fruit such as apples, oranges, clementines, bananas, pears and so forth.

The local specialities will vary too, of course, but might feature calissons d'Aix, quince paste and/or dates stuffed with marzipan, often dyed a lurid shade of pink or green.

An essential component is the pompe à l'huile (in the bottom right-hand corner of the picture). Nothing to do with car engines, it's a sweet bread made of olive oil and flavoured with orange flower water and citrus zest.

It should be torn apart when served, in the same way that Christ broke the bread, and not cut with a knife, at the risk of incurring bad luck during the coming year. (A slight variant of the pompe is the gibassier, or gibassié, a speciality from the village of Lourmarin which looks and tastes similar but is crunchy and available all year round.)

Even families who skip the rigours of the Gros Souper include a variant of the 13 Desserts in their Christmas celebrations and many food shops and supermarkets sell ready-made presentation baskets of assorted dried fruits and sweetmeats.

VIN CUIT

The 13 Desserts are generally accompanied by a glass of vin cuit. Every year our lovely local wine-maker, Le Mas Bleu in Gignac la Nerthe, gives us a bottle of this, pictured, as a Christmas gift and at first we vaguely confused it with vin chaud (mulled, spiced wine) and assumed it was meant to be drunk hot.

vin cuit mas bleuBoy were we wrong! A much-prized, limited edition (and quite expensive) speciality produced mainly in the Mont Sainte Victoire area around Aix en Provence, vin cuit is made by heating the grape must and some added spices in a big cauldron.

This process takes some days. When the volume of must has reduced by about 50 per cent, it's left to ferment and then aged in an oak barrel for at least a year. You can read more about vin cuit here.

Vin cuit is sweet and stronger than "regular" wine: the Mas Bleu one contains 14.5 per cent alcohol. It's not just a dessert wine but also goes down nicely with some cheeses. We really like it in summer with a Cavaillon melon - a sort of provençal spin on the classic port and melon combination.

The Christmas Log

An edible version of the Christmas log, or bûche de Noël, will be on display in all self-respecting French pâtisseries throughout the festive season. It's usually a Swiss Roll-like confection, a sponge-based cake lined with chocolate buttercream and coated with chocolate striated to resemble the bark of a log.

The Brioche des Rois

In theory the brioche des rois, sometimes called the couronne des rois - the kings' cake - is meant to be eaten at la fête des rois (Epiphany, 6 January). But in practice it will be glowing away temptingly in the windows of pâtisseries from mid-December and will still be widely on sale into late January and even February.

A provencal brioche des roisThis is the Southern counterpart of the galette des rois, the puff-pastry torte with frangipan filling which is sold in Northern France.

The Mediterranean version is (in the Insider's biased view) altogether much nicer, and certainly much prettier: a rich but light brioche flavoured with candied peel and topped with a multi-coloured array of preserved fruit and glistening sugar glaze.

Some believe that the shining red, gold and green fruit signifies the jewelled gifts brought by the magi.

Both galettes and brioches contain a favour orve: a broad bean and / or small porcelain figure. Whoever gets it in his or her slice at the ceremonial cutting of the cake is declared king or queen for the day - and has to pay for the brioche the following year.

funfact Each year a giant galette is baked by a master-pâtissier for the Elysée Palace. It lacks just one thing: the fève. Staunchly Republican France cannot run the small risk of the President finding it in his or her slice and being elected King.

Navettes

Candlemas (Chandeleur) on 2 February is the occasion for yet more sweetmeats: this time navettes, long thin biscuits flavoured with orange water and intended to resemble the boat, or navette, that brought Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and other saints to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence.

In fact you can buy them all year round, at such bakeries as Les Navettes des Accoules, on the edge of Marseille's Old Town, or Le Four de Navettes, near Saint Victor in Marseille, the site of Provence's most famous Candlemas procession.

Made without yeast or baking powder, these biscuits are best eaten straight from the oven, but you can freshen them up by reheating them gently.

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