Bounding down a country road on the way to the wee town of La Celle in Provence, I’m suddenly stopped, swarmed and overtaken. Hundreds of sheep are spilling from the roadside thickets and pouring onto the asphalt like so much woolly lava. There’s a shepherd accompanying them, thank goodness, and a couple of flaxen-haired children clapping their hands and bringing up the rear. And all three of these happy sheepherders are wearing red tuques with white trim and fluffy pompoms because, you see, it’s Christmastime in Provence.
As a Jewish person with a serious case of yuletide envy, I say yes to any and all seasonal invites. As a kid, I’d sing in the Christmas choir and build gingerbread houses with equal measures of royal icing and joy, and then my mom would tote her avocado-green electric skillet to my school to fry potato pancakes while teaching my classmates about our December holiday. What I learned from these girlhood experiences was that many love Christmas, but everyone loves latkes.
Now as I walk amid the towering cypress trees in the manicured gardens of Hostellerie de l’Abbaye de La Celle, a boutique hotel attached to a 12th-century abbey, I also get the feeling that everyone loves Provence. There’s a pop-up Christmas market inside the abbey that’s permeated with the heavy scent of black truffles – because, naturally, black truffle season coincides with Christmas. Holiday songs play from on high as kids frolic outside under fluffy snowflakes on this almost balmy 14°C evening. (The fake snow machine is an inspired touch.) It seems as if anything could happen at this time of year, especially as all over this part of southeastern France, preparations are underway for les treize desserts de Noël (the 13 desserts of Christmas), an indigenous cultural and culinary tradition featuring lots of candied fruit, nuts and nougat.
And for me, an Alain Ducasse restaurant set in bucolic French back country is the true Christmas miracle. At the Goûter de Noël, the abbey hotel’s holiday-themed late-afternoon tea, I sink into a velvety chaise and enjoy silver service out on the coffered glass veranda. As I sip, I nibble on pistachio-studded nougat, fresh fruit, bowls of nuts and far too many raisins for my liking – all part of this version of the 13 desserts. Signifying those in attendance at the Last Supper, it’s also known as the 13 delights, which is surprising as there’s literally no chocolate to be found. However, you may also anticipate a squat round breadlike cake (vaguely challah-esque), called la pompe de Noël. Laid out to impress, this is a gorgeous collection of handmade treats, and the marshmallows goosed with orange-flower water are a dream. “The marshmallows are a new tradition that is an Alain Ducasse original,” advises my waiter while I stuff five into my mouth as if competing on a Korean game show.
The old town centre in Aix-en-Provence is done up in twinkly lights and a Christmas market featuring an unbroken row of tidy wooden huts, many selling the specialties needed to compose your own 13 delights spread. Children on scooters run figure eights around their mulled-wine-drinking grand-papas while their grand-mamans gather provisions. There are prettily wrapped slabs of nougat and cookies, such as navettes from Marseille and calissons from Aix. (I could totally see this 13 desserts tradition taking off at home. I’m thinking rugelach, babka, Etty Danzig’s famous mandel bread...) But there are other goodies too, like chestnuts roasting over an open fire and foie gras au torchon schmeared over moist gingerbread cake – solid move and a killer midmorning snack. The most popular of the non-food offerings at the Christmas market are the santons de Provence – handcrafted figurines that have a cultlike status in the region. After wine and lavender, the santons are the calling card of this part of Provence.
With the crowd quickly filling in, I note that for the first time in my entire life I’m the most fashionable person around – and in a chic town square in France, no less! The women are mostly dressed in drab, peasant-style garb while the men wear dusty neutrals – all neckerchiefs, caps and buttoned-up vests. A horn toots, drums begin beating and I finally realize I’ve happened upon a kind of historic flash mob – turns out it’s the annual celebration called La Bravade Calendale – with singers and musicians marching down different arteries of the stonewashed inner village.
Swept up in the jovial tide, we make our way along the weathered ramparts of Aix until we’re all funnelled out in front of the Archbishop’s Palace for the grand finale of 200 costumed performers – and hundreds more revellers – taking the afternoon off to sing together before offering the pompe de Noël dessert to city officials. I feel as if I’ve snuck into a particularly evocative performance of Les Misérables, but this one’s joyous with little groupings of soloists sounding off in turns around the square. (It’s really more like a medieval version of Pitch Perfect, come to think of it.) But at its core is a wonderful shared celebration of history, not religion. It’s about giving thanks, and anyone can do that.
Retreating to the fresh market that I’d spied behind the city hall during my theatrical wonderings, I’m gobsmacked by the quantity and quality of vibrant produce in late December. Just look at those eggplants and leeks. And, oy vey, the cheeses! These lucky, lucky French, I think. But then a little while later, Oh, lucky, lucky me, I sigh as I take a seat at Restaurant le Saint-Estève at L’Hôtel Les Lodges Sainte-Victoire in nearby Le Tholonet. I’m about to indulge in an elevated take on a traditional Christmas lunch, including the 13 desserts, as interpreted by Michelin-starred chef Mathias Dandine.
Le gros souper guests, mostly well-heeled nuclear families, are clinking glasses amid soft music and tasteful decorations – a snow globe on each table, petite frosted pine trees festooning the charcoal and taupe room – though the far wall of windows is the only decor truly needed, with Montagne Sainte-Victoire, famously depicted by Cézanne, as a backdrop. Traditionally, le gros souper is a lighter meal served before Mass on the 24th; then you return from church for the desserts. But here, things are a little different. There’s a velouté of pumpkin with a sea urchin emulsion – sweet, bold and briny – poured around a lobster-size langoustine. Next comes crisp-skinned sea bass with stuffed and browned artichokes, everything lolling in a pool of lip-smacking truffle sauce. (Majestic mountain? What mountain?) The pithiviers au faisan de Noël, normally a humble pie filled with pheasant and cabbage, here becomes a main-course dazzler. Carved tableside, the burnished puff pastry encases layers of juicy pheasant, venison, emerald-green cabbage and lobes of foie gras, each wedge set upon a rich, almost sticky truffle jus. It’s a giant tart of showmanship.
I call a time out before the chariot de fromages and the spread of delights and the vin cuit de Provence arrive (“The only wine to serve with the 13 desserts,” offers waiter Bruno) so that we can cat-stretch out on the terrace before sitting down to more nougat and raisins. Others follow. We all chat and breathe the brisk afternoon air and digest as we take in the surroundings, the cypress and olive trees, the blue skies and snowy peaks. “I’ve painted that mountain a hundred times,” says the woman with the perfect silver bob, “and I’ll probably paint it a hundred times more.”
In Arles, just before dusk, I scale the stairs to the top of the ancient Roman amphitheatre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and can see all corners of the pastel-coloured city: whites, creams, pale greens and blues, unified under terracotta roofs. Even though this is my first time in Arles, so much of it seems familiar. Then it hits me: It’s all Van Gogh paintings come to life. Many of the restaurants still look like The Café Terrace, an 1888 masterpiece of a place that could exist today. The winter sky’s still midnight blue, the stars still swirl above and the street lamps still cast amber light and shadows on the centuries-old apartments and bistro tables. I feel that holiday traditions are a lot like Roman amphitheatres and famous works of art: They also inspire and delight, and tell important stories too.
With the moon now coming out to shine, I’m making my way home to the cozy little Hôtel du Cloître, where the plan is to possibly sip natural wines at the adjoining alfresco wine bar – yes, patio weather in December – when I hear an energetic gaggle approaching from around the bend. Hark! It’s a jaunty group of costumed carollers wearing antlers and elf shoes, off to spread good cheer. It’s almost as if the Christmas angels got together and hatched a plan to show me what their holiday is all about. “Let’s throw everything we’ve got at her,” I imagine them conspiring.
Well, mission accomplished, guys, because I am most definitely feeling the spirit of the holiday season in Provence: generous people, lush surroundings, some great wine and food – and way too many raisins.