No Partridges, Just Thirteen Desserts: French Christmas Culinary Traditions

I love culinary traditions … and usually I don’t mind cooking all the foods associated with upholding those traditions.  Like Thanksgiving dinner, for example. Turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean casserole (from scratch, mind you), pumpkin pie with whipped cream (crust handmade just prior to baking), and sweet potato casserole (no marshmallows). Mac and cheese, too, if you’re a true Southerner.

Culinary traditions pin you to your past, or at least allow you to tie your apron strings onto the past of others, if your own tradition includes nothing more than Twinkies or Tater Tots.

And, joy of joys, just a month after Thanksgiving comes Christmas, a bright spot as winter begins to wrap its cloak tightly around the shivering souls in the northern hemisphere.

Whoa, what about Advent?

Heralding the arrival of Christmas across the Christian world, Advent for the most part has lost its importance in the modern scheme of things. Black Friday, online shopping, and obligatory Christmas cards seem to be usurping the role of Advent in many quarters.

But not in parts of France.

In France, secular as she is, l’avent promises feasting based on ancient traditions, most of which are based on facets of medieval Catholicism or even older practices . There, as you might guess, because of her long gilded past, France and her citizens enjoy ample tradition, culinary and otherwise. And for the next several weeks, cooks, especially in the south of France, will be thinking ahead to Le Réveillon (Christmas Eve supper) and its treize desserts (thirteen desserts) and seven meatless courses. Provençal poets like Frederic Mistral and Marie Gasquet recorded their thoughts about this custom,  Mistral describing them as a “quantity of sweet delicacies.” Ancient in provenance, the first desserts may have been nothing more than 12 loaves of bread and round loaf marked with a cross, representing then as now the twelve apostles and Christ.

Photo credit: Eric Delcroix

And so it only seems apropos to celebrate Advent here at Gherkins & Tomatoes / Cornichons & Tomates by creating a sort of Advent calendar, marking off the days until Christmas with brief scroungings about in the culinary traditions of French Christmas.

The following list, based on the one given by Larousse Gastronomique: The World’s Greatest Culinary Encyclopedia (2009) and Mireille Johnston in her The Cuisine of the Sun (1976), hints of the delights to come:

Fresh fruit


Grapes (“that have been hung since the autumn and are wrinkled and sweet, almost like honey”)


Oranges from Nice



Winter melon (“carefully turned to ripen in the cellar since autumn”)


Biscotins (biscuits) from Aix

Bûche de Noël / Yule log (a relatively new addition)

Calissons d’Aix, almond-paste pastry with sugar icing (marzipan)

Candied citron

Casse-dents of Allauch (hard biscuits)

Cumin and fennel seed biscuits

Fried bugnes

Fruit tourtes

Oreillettes, light thin waffles

Pain d’épice (spiced gingerbread)

Pompes à l’huiles or fougasse à l’huile d’olive,  sweet cake or brioche made with orange flower water and olive oil

Quince cheese/quince paste (Pâte de coing)

Dried Fruits and Nuts

The quatre mendiants, based on  four major religious orders:

Raisins (Dominicans)

Walnuts or hazelnuts (Augustines)

Dried figs (Franciscans)

Almonds (Carmelites)

as well as

Dates, representing the foods of the region and the Three Wise Men / Three Kings

Dried plums from Brignoles

Two kinds of nougat, dark and light, representing a Mainchean division between good and evil:

Black nougat with honey (Nougat noir au miel), hard candy made with honey and almonds

White nougat (Nougat blanc), soft candy made with sugar, eggs, pistachios, honey, and almonds

Photo Credit: Véronique Pagnier

To be continued …

Be sure to read other posts on Provence’s Thirteen Desserts:

No Partridges, Just Thirteen Desserts HERE

Lillet by Another Means: Vin d’Orange, or, French Christmas Spirit HERE

Citron* (Cédrat), Jewel-Like Morsel of Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE

One of the Thirteen, the Tangerine HERE

Panis focacius, la Gibacié, and la  Pompe à l’huîle, Kin Under the Crust, One of the Thirteen HERE

Begging the Question: Les Quatre Mendiants and Provence’s Thirteen Christmas Desserts HERE

Les Quatre Mendiants au Chocolat, A Candy Offshoot of Provence’s Thirteen Christmas DessertsHERE

Nougat Noir, or Black Nougat, Another of the Thirteen Desserts HERE

The Provençal Thirteen: Fennel- and Cumin-Scented Sablés HERE

© 2010 C. Bertelsen

6 thoughts on “No Partridges, Just Thirteen Desserts: French Christmas Culinary Traditions

  1. Hi Cynthia,

    I was also quite shocked by the real candles on the tree — have you also seen that? Unfortunately this was so long ago (Christmas 1978) that I don’t remember the contents of the meal. I was living in Alsace, and the family I worked for ate very well. We ate a lot of Alsatian dishes but I think that night we ate French. I wish I could remember the particulars. I just know it was all very good.

  2. I loved reveillon when I lived in France. Our Christmas tree had real candles on it. Dinner didn’t start until 10 p.m. then those that wanted to walked through the snow to midnight mass. I don’t believe we followed the seven vegetarian courses and thirteen desserts tradition but the food was still magnificent. A treasured memory for me. Yet again, a lovely post! I look forward to following your Advent calendar.

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