Noël, Christmastime in the south of France, is an atmosphere of warmth translated through the senses. Whether a local or a visitor, or simply a Francophile at heart, the Christmas Eve mealtime tradition of Le Gros Souper is meaningful to anyone who shares the feast, an instrument of eloquence and tradition passed from generation to generation.
The Christmas table is set in white — Photo courtesy of Château de Saint Martin
Custom suggests setting the dining table in white, with three tablecloths and three candlesticks, representing the Holy Trinity. Provence is a rural area, steeped in tradition and religious complexity, and an atmosphere of divinity is woven through the celebration. A sense of inclusion prevails – seats are arranged for each family member or friend, including a space for a chance visitor or needy person.
During the Cacho-Fio, translated as "to set alight," the oldest and youngest member of the family light the fire in a particular way, transferring a chosen log to the hearth to symbolize the transition from one year to the next. The elder then leads the family in a toast that wraps up with the phrase, "May God grant us the grace to see the coming year, and if we are no more, let us be no less." This is the signal to gather around the table.
Elements of Le Gros Souper served at Château de Saint Martin — Photo courtesy of Château de Saint Martin
Prior to Midnight Mass, a meager meal of seven meatless dishes is served, a sparse but nutritious array massaged by tradition, composed with resources available from village to village. Common elements include aïoli served with boiled fish or eel, hard-boiled eggs, chard or spinach au gratin, celery with anchovy sauce and vegetables such as carrots, artichokes, cauliflowers, potatoes and green beans.
Aïgo Bouido is a soup of boiled water, garlic, bay leaf, thyme and sage. It is served with the notion that "Aïgo bouido sauvo la vido" – old Provençal for "boiled water saves your life," or at least your digestive health if you happen to overeat!
After Midnight Mass, families enjoy the pinnacle of the event: les treize desserts de Noël, 13 desserts symbolizing Christ and his apostles. These are typically a mix of nuts, dried figs, dates, raisins, black and white nougat, quince paste, white grapes, citrus fruit, candied fruits, a confection called calissons, pompe à l'huile (sweet olive oil bread) and – less ancient but still delicious – chocolates and bûche de Noël (a Christmas cake shaped like a log).
A selection of wine with Le Gros Souper — Photo courtesy of Château de Saint Martin
A distinct wine called vin cuit (cooked wine) accompanies the desserts. Originating in the vineyards near Mont Sainte-Victoire, between Aix-en-Provence and Trets, this sweet wine is cooked low and slow in a cauldron over a series of days, followed by several years of oak aging before being released during Christmastime. Vin cuit can be found at holiday markets and wine domaines around Provence.
Along with vin cuit, it is traditional to serve seven local table wines, including red, white and rosé. Château de Saint Martin, Cru Classe domaine in Taradeau hosts a chef-prepared Le Gros Souper for guests each year – they follow this approach: "Each cuvée is presented in a different state of mind, from all Provençal varieties chosen separately and assembled according to the range of flavors."
Château de Saint Martin hosts Le Gros Souper for guests — Photo courtesy of Château de Saint Martin
For those who can't spend Christmas in Provence, the meal can be recreated at home, comprised of mostly simple ingredients found in stores and markets around the world.
The menu is "typically regional and may differ depending on the city or region of Provence," says Jean Quero, organizer of the welcoming, village-wide Le Petite Marche du Gros Souper in St. Rémy-de-Provence, which features a market offering all of the ingredients for the meal.
Vin cuit wines are available on a limited basis in the U.S. through online merchants. Mas de Cadenet, located in Trets at the base of Mont Sainte-Victoire, exports a supply of their bottling. As for the seven other Provençal wines, consider a range of red and rosé wines made from the classic varieties of Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Carignan or Cinsault.
Don't forget lovely white wines from Rolle (aka Vermentino), Ugni Blanc, Bourboulenc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc.
The final step? Say a French Merry Christmas to those you love: Joyeux Noël!