As French Christmas traditions go, 13 Provencal Desserts (or Treize Desserts) are quite possibly the most interesting, especially among the epicures.
According to old records, it’s a tradition that has been around in some form since at least the 17th century. However, it’s kind of tricky to pinpoint where the number thirteen became so important.
For example, François Marchetti, a Marseleise priest, describes a custom of serving an abundance of fresh fruits and pastries like Pompe before Christmas in his 1683 work Explication des Usages et Coutumes des Marseillais. But he doesn’t indicate the number.
About a century later, in the 1780s, French poet and moralist Laurent Pierre Bérenger devoted an entire chapter to Christmas desserts in his Soirées Provençales. His work mentioned multiple treats served as part of Thirteen Desserts spread today (nuts, figs, fresh grapes and raisins, fruit like apples and oranges, candied citron, nougat, etc.), but, again, it doesn’t mention any specific numbers.
In fact, the earliest record of the number thirteen explicitly being used in relation to a classic Christmas dessert course can be traced to only 1925 (Christmas issue of La Pagato newspaper), almost 250 years after Marchetti’s work.
But fast forward to a world a century later, and Treize Desserts are one of the signature French Christmas Traditions. Possibly the signature French Christmas tradition, right after Buche de Noel.
And there aren’t even precisely thirteen of them!
What Does an Average 13 Desserts Course Look Like?
Considering how much emphasis is put on the number 13, one would expect it would be a neat list of precisely 13 desserts with no variations. Alas, it’s not so simple. Over the years, the dessert course has gone through many modifications, and while years have cemented certain desserts as the essential part of the course, others are gentle suggestions at best.
According to various estimates, over fifty-five holiday treats have been included on the list at one point or another. Here’s how a traditional Provencal thirteen desserts course will look in the 21st century (though each household will likely opt to add something they love that’s not considered strictly traditional.
“The Four Beggars”: Almonds, Walnuts, Dried Figs, Raisins
“The Four Beggars” or Four Mendiants is a mix of dried fruits and nuts that are supposed to represent the four Roman Catholic mendicant orders.
Almonds are to represent the Carmelites, walnuts (or hazelnuts) represent the Augustinians, dried figs represent the Franciscans, and raisins represent the Dominicans.
“The Four Beggars” are one of the most enduring parts of the thirteen desserts. If someone has decided to observe the tradition, they will most likely have a bowl with four mendicants on the table.
While not as ever-enduring as the Four Beggars, dates are still one of the most respected courses among the thirteen desserts and are found at most tables. Dates have a religious significance: they are supposed to represent the birth and death place of Jesus. Apparently, there’s also a myth that either Mother Mary or Baby Jesus himself exclaimed “O” when they first saw the fruit, so now it’s traditional to look for the letter “O” on the pits.
Fresh fruit is almost always found on the French Christmas table, even when the household isn’t observing the 13 dessert tradition. If it is, then the fruits most often found at the table would be:
- Winter melon
While not necessarily very traditional, it has become somewhat of a habit in recent years to add more exotic fruits to the spread, like kiwi or lychee. The course is apparently supposed to symbolize a bountiful harvest for the upcoming year.
Fruit Confits (Candied Fruit, Jams, Jellies)
Preserved fruit is also frequently found on the tables with thirteen dessert spreads. It’s not the case of one or another; it’s an entirely separate course.
Candied fruits, especially candied citrons like oranges or clementines, and candied melons are the most traditional and common choice, but they’re sometimes swapped for other fruit preserves, like jams (fruit jams with grape must are considered the most traditional option when it comes to thirteen desserts specifically), jellies, and citrus marmalade.
Another, though a less classic, option is swapping candied fruit for cooked fruit desserts, like pears in sweet Vin Cuit. For fairness’ sake, it’s an option most often offered at restaurants, not at regular households.
Fruit pastes are another option, though it’s not entirely clear whether they substitute candied fruit or are served as a course of their own. For example, quince paste or quince cheese can often be found along with other fruit preserves, and it’s unclear whether it’s being served as a separate part of the spread or as a part of the fruit confits. Especially considering fruit confits tend to switch between households, while quince paste has remained a staple choice.
While it’s often referred to as cheese, there’s no dairy in quince cheese. It’s made with quince pulp, water, and sugar, forming a thick, chewy jelly that’s solid enough to cut. It’s called cheese because the texture is somewhat reminiscent of soft cheese, but that’s where the connection ends.
Nougat: White and Black
Nougat is another must-have if the household is determined to follow French Christmas traditions and serve thirteen desserts. Again, similar to the Four Beggars and the dates, nougat is about religious symbolism first and foremost, and that symbolism makes it one of the most prominent parts of the spread.
If nougat is served, it’s always two types of it served together:
- White nougat (le nougat blanc) is a soft and chewy nougat made with sugar, eggs, honey, almonds, and sometimes pistachios. It’s supposed to represent the light, the good part of human nature.
- Black nougat with honey (le nougat noir au miel) is a hard and crunchy candy, almost entirely made up of whole almonds. The dark color is supposed to symbolize the evil part of human nature.
The symbolism of nougat candy is two-fold. While religious symbolism is its primary function, the two colors of nougat candy are also supposed to represent day and night. Not in the “dichotomy of good and evil” sense but symbolizing the winter solstice, with the longest night of the year passing and giving way to lengthening days.
Buche de Noël
Buche de Noël, the French Yule Log cake, is likely one of the most recent additions to the thirteen desserts, but it’s also the most widespread and popular one.
Only emerging around the 19th century, at least a couple of centuries later after Treize Desserts had already become one of the most enduring French Christmas traditions, it, nevertheless, quickly established itself as the main star of the course. You may expect some of the households to skimp out on specific entries on this list or swap it for something else, but Buche de Noël is always expected.
Buche de Noël is a simple genoise sponge cake filled with light cream, rolled in a Swiss roll fashion, and covered with a thick layer of chocolate cream embellished in a specific way to resemble a large log. It’s often decorated with powdered sugar (to resemble snow), fresh red berries, and figurines made of either marzipan or meringue.
Possibly Provence’s biggest gastronomical pride and joy, Calissons d’Aix, have been around since at least the 13th century. The candy itself is a soft and chewy paste covered with crunchy royal icing. The texture is somewhat similar to marzipan, and calissons are even called marzipan candy sometimes, but they’re their own thing. The paste for calissons does contain almond flour or meal, but the main ingredient is candied fruit, typically candied melon (or, more rarely, candied orange).
Calissons are traditionally shaped like elongated rhombi, but squares and rectangles have become more common in recent years.
Gibassiér, Fougasse, Navettes, or Pompe à l'Huile
Gibassiér is a Provencal galette mainly recognized for its distinct shape (depicted above). It’s often confused with Pompe, a pastry with a similar shape but different dough - moister and raised. Pompe is more common for the Thirteen Desserts spread, and it’s typically flavored with orange blossom water (Pompe à l’Huile) and olive oil.
But it’s also not uncommon to swap it for (or serve it alongside) Gibassier or fougasse, another Provencal flatbread shaped like a leaf. The Gibassier and fougasse are also traditionally flavored with olive oil and sometimes with orange blossom water as well, especially if they’re supposed to be served instead of Pompe, not alongside it.
Pompe and fougasse aren’t the only types of bread found among Thirteen Desserts. Pain d’Epice, a heavily spiced honey-based sweet bread, is another.
Traditional Pain d’Epice is supposed to be a dense but moist cake with robust honey and cinnamon flavor. Other typical spices incorporated in the cake include a blend of nutmeg, aniseed, cloves, and cardamom.
Original Pain d’Epice wasn’t leavened, but you’re unlikely to find the classic option anywhere these days: since the 19th century leavening the cake with either baking powder or baking soda has become the norm.
Pain d’Epice is one of the oldest traditional French treats on this list, having been around since at least the 16th century, possibly even before the Treize Desserts became a tradition themselves.
In contrast with Pain d’Epice, fruit tarts are likely the more recent addition to the spread, maybe even later than Buche de Noël.
Fruit tarts themselves have been around since late medieval times, at least the mid-16th century, and are theorized to be a side product of pie making. But initially, the short crust-based pastry was expensive and considered a luxury, usually reserved for nobility. Additionally, medieval tarts had savory fillings, mainly made with meat, similar to pies.
We can assume that fruit tarts with enriched crumbly dough, vanilla custard, and fresh fruit were added to the Thirteen Dessert spread precisely because, by that time, it had become a commodity rather than a luxury item. Fruit tarts are not considered to be among the more traditional (or essential) parts of the spread, but the majority of households choose to add them, as they’re comparatively cheap and widely beloved.
Bugnes (French Angel Wings) and Oreillettes
Bugnes are a fried dough pastry, a variety of Angel Wings. Unlike most Angel Wing pastry varieties, which are usually crisp and crunchy, Bugnes can also be soft and chewy.
Originally a Lyon specialty, they were served right before Lent at cold meat shops. It’s not very clear when they transitioned to being a traditional Provencal Christmas tradition, but they are included in most lists describing Treize Desserts.
Sometimes Bugnes are swapped for or served alongside another fried dough pastry, called Oreillettes. Oreillettes are thin and crunchy pastry dough, usually cut into rectangles, sometimes with a slash in the middle. Crisp Bugnes and Oreillettes are pretty similar, with the shape often the one distinct difference between the two.
Fennel and Cumin Sablés or Galettes
Fennel and Cumin flavored cookies are another enduring traditions of Thirteen Desserts, though they’re considered to be among the less prevalent elements of the course. A twist on classic French cookies, these galettes or sables are supposed to be savory and not sweet, even though they’re part of the dessert course.
They’re supposed to be round and flat, with quite a mellow flavor, regardless of the spices used.
Did you know that cheese was considered to be a desert for a long time? Apparently, adding piquant Cachat cheese to the dessert course can be traced back to that perception. Because flavor-wise, it’s not very suited for desserts.
On the contrary, Cachat is one of the most robustly flavored and savory French cheeses. It’s made with a mix of cheese and goat milk and flavored with chopped parsley and brandy. The cheese is then kept in a jar to infuse. It’s soft and gets creamier and more piquant as the years go by.
What Drinks Are the 13 Desserts Paired With?
The French do love their wine, so it’s no surprise that the traditional pairing for their desserts is also wine. The most classic options are sweet Carthagène liqueur wine, Vin Cuit (sweet cooked wine), or muscat wine, especially if fougasse is part of the course. You’re supposed to tear the bread apart with your fingers and dip it in the wine before eating.
Sweet fruit-flavored liqueurs are also typical, especially Cherry Ratafia, though wine remains the most popular choice.