The truth is, the dishes associated with Provence’s Thirteen Desserts abound with religious symbolism.
Take the Four Beggars, or Les Quatre Mendiants, which symbolize something that we in the secular West have basically lost, a sense of awe and fear about the natural world and all that is in it. The Thirteen Desserts likely represented a way to ensure a righteous, blessed life, free from the challenges of living in times of strife and great uncertainty. Although today we might not fear the same things as people did in the Middle Ages, fear still very much walks with us daily and drives a lot of our behavior.
Each of these mendiants — nuts and dried fruits — represents one of the four orders of wandering, non-cloistered monks of the late Middle Ages. Note that the Benedictines, one of the most powerful orders in medieval France, is not represented, because they were very much tied to place by their vows of stability. Note too that Saint Benedict spoke a bit derisively about these types of monks, whom he called gyrovagues (the orders themselves didn’t yet exist when St. Benedict wrote his Rule in the sixth century).
As to why people picked nuts and dried fruits to represent religious orders?
Well, I’m still trying to find documentation on that, but I think we can see two things going on here: The very fact that these orders are part of the Thirteen Desserts, alongside highly esteemed foods, indicates that at one point in time, the French respected these religious and their work, but then there’s the flip side. Like some of the derogatory pasta names invented by the Italians, names that suggest a — shall we say — disdain for clerics, perhaps the act of associating nuts and dried fruits with religious orders represent a little tongue-in-cheek “flipping the bird”?
Hazelnuts = Augustinians
Dried figs = Franciscans
Almonds = Carmelites, or White Friars
Raisins = Dominicans, or Black Friars
Recipes? Just rip open the packages or bags and place the nuts and fruits attractively on a platter.
To be continued … Mendiants au Chocolat Noir and Mendiants au Chocolat Blanc
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
© 2010 C. Bertelsen