We lived in rural Provence for almost a decade and every Christmas Eve gradually reduced our consumption of imported mince pies, brandy snaps and liqueur-filled chocolates, replacing them with the Provençal tradition of Le Gros Souper. Despite its name, the meal is a display of restraint before the Christmas celebrations begin. It starts with a cleansing soup, aïgo boulido, boiled water with floating garlic slices, bay and sage leaves and a dash of olive oil. It’s surprisingly popular with my children, who drink it between chocolates and before the fish course, which is a salt cod and potato gratin served with courgettes, broccoli, anchovy paste, a boiled egg and aïoli sauce.
The fish needs soaking the day before in a milk bath. Abiding by tradition, we have three candles and three tablecloths (the Holy Trinity) and a large cloth to cover the buffet and desserts. Leftovers are not cleared away but remain on the table for any departed ancestors. This also makes the rush to midnight mass easier – France’s 8pm curfew is lifted only on Christmas Eve this year.
On our return from church, the cloth is whipped away to reveal 13 desserts. One for Jesus and each of his 12 apostles. Desserts vary from village to village but always include dried figs (representing the Franciscans), walnuts (Augustinians), almonds (Carmelites) and raisins (Dominicans).
We also put out dates, grapes, oreillettes (sweet, ear-shaped wafers), pain d’épices (gingerbread), calissons d’Aix (marzipan lozenges), casse-dents from Aullach (tooth-breaker biscuits), the bûche de Noël (chocolate log), white and black nougat (good and evil) and pompe à l’huile (olive-oil flatbread). Brits’ sherry and snowballs are replaced by vin cuit (a syrupy pudding wine produced near Mont Sainte-Victoire). This carries us through until the early hours, by which time the real yule log would have burnt down to a streak of smouldering ash in the fireplace.
Our Provençal-speaking neighbour told me that the desserts should stay on the table for three days. Among the figs and almonds, we put tiny clay figurines called santons (from the Provençal word meaning little saint). When Napoleon closed French churches in 1793 and banned nativity scenes, local craftsmen made the Holy Family in miniature and smuggled the figurines around in pockets and under capes, so villagers could celebrate in secret. The Bethlehem stable was relocated to rustic Provence and the Three Kings joined by artisans, villagers and Provençal animals, a wetnurse, a beekeeper, flamingos and black bulls from the Camargue, a pétanque player and the artist Paul Cézanne seated in front of his easel.
At our house we have the Fisherman, the Simpleton and the Washerwoman, who spend 11 months wrapped up with the baubles and tinsel in our basement and come out for a fortnight on our dining-room table. Santons are always portrayed with grimacing expressions to reflect the daily toil of Provençal life. The garlic seller is turning his nose away from his pungent bundle, and the baker has a basket of loaves on his shoulder and a pompe à l’huile clutched to his right hip.
The pompe à l’huile, which is traditionally broken by hand and never cut, takes its name, “oil pump”, from when it was made by dumping flour into the olive mill to soak up the last of the oil. This recipe, enough for two loaves, is by Rosa Jackson, who runs a cooking school called Les Petits Farcis in Nice and has been offering online cooking classes since the first lockdown.
Pompe à l’huile recipe
Olive oil breads are traditional in the olive-growing parts of France. This particular bread is most closely associated with Arles and keeps for about three days. Though the original recipe does not contain egg, I have added one to lighten the dough. Don’t be alarmed at the slow rising, which is due to the quantity of sugar and oil in the dough.
For two loaves
7g instant dry yeast
¼ cup warm water
250g plain flour or strong bread flour (plus a little extra as needed)
60g caster sugar
½ tsp salt
2 eggs (1 for the dough, 1 for glazing)
60ml fruity olive oil
1 tbsp orange flower water or the grated zest of 1 orange and 1 tbsp water
Anise seeds, for sprinkling (optional)
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Dissolve the yeast in the warm water and set aside.
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook or by hand, mix the flour, sugar and salt. Make a well in the centre.
Add the dissolved yeast, one egg, olive oil and orange flower water or orange zest and water. Mix on low speed or by hand until a dough forms, then continue kneading in the mixer or by hand for 2-3 minutes, until the dough is smooth and springy. If it seems very sticky, sprinkle with a little more flour before removing it from the bowl.
Shape the dough into a ball using your hands and place it in a medium bowl. Cover the bowl with clingfilm or a plate and set aside to rise in a warm place for two hours. Don’t panic if not much has happened after an hour.
Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured work surface and gently press out the air. Divide it into two and shape each piece into a ball. Cover with a tea towel and let rest for 10 minutes.
Place the dough balls on the baking sheet and flatten each one into an oval about 1cm thick. Using a sharp knife or an apple corer, carve a small circle in the centre of each oval, then make four long slits, like a cross, from the centre to near the edge of the dough. Open the slits slightly, using your fingers. Cover the flatbreads and let them rise for about one hour, until slightly puffy.
Preheat the oven to 180C. Whisk the remaining egg in a small bowl, then brush the egg on to the dough. Sprinkle with anise seeds if you like. Bake for 20 minutes, until golden brown. Serve warm or at room temperature.
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