What to Eat in France: Le Gros Souper de Noël, the Great Christmas Supper in Provence
In France, the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. Every region in France approaches Christmas Eve meals differently, but that of Provence, known as Le Gros Souper in French and the Gros Soupa in the Provençal dialect, is perhaps the best known.
The table is set with three white tablecloths, one on top of the other, representing the Holy Trinity. Three candles light the table, representing past, present and future. The past is in memory of loved ones who are deceased; the present to express one’s loyalty to friends and family, and the future to express hope for children yet to be born. Three bowls of germinated wheat, planted on December 4th, St. Barbara’s Day, and decorated with red and yellow ribbons, are used as table decoration. Once again, the number three is symbolic of the Holy Trinity.
St. Barbara, a Middle Eastern Christian saint, was the beautiful and much sought after daughter of Dioscore, who locked her in a tower to keep her suitors away. Much to her pagan father’s chagrin, she managed to get baptized, inciting him to go after her with a sword. She managed to escape and hide under a cliff, but a shepherd saw her and informed on her. As a result, God punished him by turning his herd of sheep into grasshoppers. She was sent to prison, then forced to give up Christianity and marry a pagan. Refusing to renounce her God, she was tortured and her father finally slit her throat, so the heavens promptly sent down lightning and killed Dioscore in revenge. This miracle is recreated symbolically today by germinating and planting grains of wheat, and sometimes chickpeas.
Quand lou blad vèn bèn, tout vèn bèn ! or “when the wheat is doing well, everything is going well,” meaning that if it germinates, it will bring prosperity for the coming year. This tradition apparently dates back to the Romans. The direct connection between germination of the wheat and St. Barbara is not clear, nor how St. Barbara became a favorite saint in Provence.
On December 26, the bowls are placed next to the nativity scene, another great Provençal tradition, until Epiphany, when they are planted in the ground.
The Gros Souper is served before midnight mass, and consists of seven light dishes in memory of the Virgin Mary’s Seven Sorrows. One might think it a copious meal, viewing that there are seven courses. It is through the simplicity of the dishes served that it is “light,” not through the number. The meal is full of numbers, in fact, all of which are symbolic: three for the Trinity, seven for the Seven Sorrows, and thirteen desserts representing Jesus and the twelve apostles.
In terms of food, because Provence is located in the far south of France, more vegetables are available in the wintertime, so there is, naturally, an emphasis on vegetables. Pumpkin and squash are always on the menu, as are cardoons, artichokes, cabbage and celery. In any case, there is an abundance of vegetables, a change from the rest of France, where Christmas Eve meals are dominated by protein and fat. These are served with the ever-present anchoiade, a Provençal anchovy paste.
The main dish is dried cod, another local specialty. A typical Gros Souper Christmas Eve dinner in Provence might consist of cabbage soup, celery with anchovy paste, snails, vegetable soup, and dried cod gratin with spinach and cardoons. No matter what, the Christmas Eve meal always finishes with thirteen desserts, as many as you can eat.
The whole meal is served buffet style, putting everything on the table at the beginning, traditionally even the thirteen desserts, referred to as calenos. Like the rest of the meal, the desserts are not rich, often consisting of figs, grapes and raisins, almonds, walnuts, prunes, oranges, apples, pears, oranges, candied lemons, local cookies and a local specialty, nougat, along with the traditional pompe à huile, actually a local fougasse bread sweetened with orange flower water and olive oil, placing it more in line with other Mediterranean festive meals, including those of Sephardic Jews for Rosh Hashana and Egyptian Greeks for New Year’s celebrations, than with Christmas traditions in the rest of France.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.