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Tradition in Aix-en-Provence - Cooking and confection  
If the way to the heart is through the stomach, the way to the soul is through the heart. What we eat, how, and with whom, are part of our identity. A people (culture) that shares such a disparate, sometimes desperate, trinity with the relics of its own past is ripe plunder for anthropologist, sociologist and every kind of predatory mind. The arbitrary and nonetheless alphabetical list below is proposed as appetizer. After all, Mayle’s year in Provence "began with lunch" :


Lamb, served as rack, cutlets, or gigot (leg). L’agneau de Sisteron is notoriously tender, and succulent, poor thing, and plays a leading role at the Easter lunch table.


A simple, unique combination of garlic mayonnaise, cod, snails, and assorted vegetables, all boiled : potatoes, carrots, asparagus, beans, artichoke, cauliflower, green beans etc. Aïoli is one of Provençe’s answer to Lent, the plat de résistance of Ash Wednesday and is consumed en famille at the cabanon, their modest "place in the country".

Les amandes

(almonds) Like the olive, one of the most prolific of nature’s fruits, a frequent ingredient in confectionery and a dominant ingredient of the famous Aix "calissson". (see below)


An anchovy sauce with olive oil, used as seasoning for salads and vegetables.

La bouillabaisse

A composite of several Mediterranean fish, each one of which has its flavor, while all blend, tender fleshed and shell mixed promiscuously, unequally time-sharing the same pot with onions, tomatoes, fennel, laurel, orange peel etc. Bouillabaisse, unsurprisingly, means "boil and simmer", its modest label belying its pride of place in traditional Provençal cuisine.

La bourride

Like bouillabaisse, la bourride qualifies for a day of fasting at the same time as it provides gastronomic refinement. Sea perch (loup), whiting (merlan), and angler (baudroie) accompanied by bread soaked in an aïoli bouillon derived from the above, are enough to give Lent a good name.

La bûche de Noël

The Christmas dessert, shaped like a yule log, amply plastered with rich cream and chocolate sugar icing, and filled with more of the same. The original, cut from a cherry tree, olive, or pear, is borne ceremoniously into the house, then lit with ritual sprinkling of alcohol or olive oil to the incantatory exhortations : "alègre, alègre", (rejoice and be merry !). The ceremony of the log, with variations as numerous as there are families, recalls the opportune coincidence of pagan and Christian rites. Thrice around the house, or thrice around the table the log is carrried by the patriarch and the youngest member of the family, while the following litany is repeated, "Oh, sacred fire, grant us fine weather that our ewes may lamb, our goats caper, our cows calve, and daughters and daughters-in-law do likewise !"The lighting of the log, the ceremony itself, and the indiscriminately delicate association of piety, prosperity, and fertility for all, could hardly fail to impress any pagan god lurking in the shadows, or blushing daugter-in-law who might prefer not to be included in the inventory.

Le calisson

A wafer, diamond, or boat-shaped, surmounted by a thin layer of almonds ground with glazed melons and fruit syrup, and topped with a thin sugar icing, a treat enjoyed since the fifteenth century, and an Aix-en-Provence speciality. The calisson is a "candy for all seasons" though traditionally it was consumed at holy communion celebrated at the church of Notre Dame de la Seds at Christmas, Easter and on September 1st. in commemoration of the plague of 1630. In inviting the faithful "venite ad calicem" could there, perchance, have been a misunderstanding? The question is pertinent when one compares the sweet succulence of the wafer with the rough tongue of the wine. The calisson enjoys the benefit of the doubt which surrounds its origin, which in no wise diminishes its reputation ! The symbolism of its mystery unleashes facile fantasy. Is it the nave of the church, the boat that brought Mary Magdalene to the shores of les Saintes Maries de la Mer, the symbol of the sea harvest and fishermen protected by Notre Dame de la Garde , la bonne mère , or simply the shape of the almond, its chief ingredient ? Frédéric Mistral, grand master of the Provençal Renaissance of the nineteenth century, judged it to be a phonetic deformation of "canissoun", a mat of woven reeds on which it was placed by the confectioner to dry in the sun. (Cannisses are a current Provençal term for reed screens used to restrict the view, to mark boundaries, as on the seashore, or to provide shade against the sun for car-ports and shelters).

As with calissons, so it is with all traditions. Behind outward and visible signs lurk a thousand inventions, possibilities, and beliefs peculiar to moments in their history. Their "truth",if it exists, is in the multiplicity of their origins, their tenacity, and their easy adaptation to the spirit of succeeding ages.

Le crespèu

(crèpe/omelette) otherwise, but not quite, "pancake". A "special" on Shrove Tuesday, which in northern climes, marks the beginning of Lent, time of confession, abstinence, and pious renunciation, while "in Latin countries it is a binge, the hilarious last day of carnival, known in France as Mardi Gras !" The egg, the crespèu, and the omelette, pagan symbols all invoke the sun, fecundity, and life itself.

La fougasse

Unleavened bread kneaded with olive oil, finest flour and scented with extract of orange blossom, the fougasse belongs to the gros souper of Christmas eve, and was originally included among the thirteen desserts. Today, spiked with olives, anchovies, or ham, it is to be found in bakeries and is considered as an entrée rather than dessert.

Les fruits confits

Major product of Apt in the Vaucluse. Glazed melon, pear, clementines, cherries, figs, plums, orange and lemon peel, all as delicious as they are treacherous ; like nougat they are "the dentist’s best friend", and like the "sweet" fougasse, and natural fruits, almonds, etc... they have their place among the thirteen desserts of le gros souper on Christmas eve.

Le gâteau des rois

Crown (couronne) of brioche hailing the arrival of the three kings who have journied far to worship the infant Jesus in Bethlehem on the feast of Epiphany, twelve days after his birth. Concealed in its well inflated baked tyre is a bean (la fève), placed by happy coincidence in the slice likely to land on the plate of the youngest, oldest, noisiest, or most beloved member of the family. He, or she, then dons the golden paper crown for the remainder of the evening. The gâteau des rois is served as dessert on the eve of Epiphany, the "galette" (girdle cake) being divided among family, guests, and, in distant times, servants, an extra piece being set aside for "le pauvre". The "king", even after the French revolution, displaced the patriarch at the head of the table, and chose a queen for the evening’s festivities. A small porcelain santon has been added to the modern gâteau another version of which, la galette, is round, flat, rich in almond paste, and, having no hole in the middle, quite unsuitable as headwear for a king or anyone else.

Les navettes

yet another example of the power of the spirit made flesh, or food. Divine intervention and the cooperation of the baker boulanger-pâtissier have joined forces at Candlemass, la chandeleur to produce la navette. Originally a pagan ritual signaling the end of winter (the candle of winter is snuffed "on mouche la chandelle" on February 2nd) and the light of spring begins to gain in strength and length at the expense of the cold and darkness of winter. Tiny candles on fragile wooden craft were launched down the river Sorgue near Bédarrides (Vaucluse). Their arrival downstream at le Pont Rouge was greeted by the young navigators of the village with a satisfaction proportionate to the number of candles extinguished during the voyage. In the nineteenth century Marseille transformed them into a small crisp biscuit, hollowed inside and shaped like a skiff, and sold like "hot cakes", or distributed to the faithful as they emerged from Mass into the freezing February air. The transference of the navette to the equally fragile, rudderless craft that landed Mary Magdalene and her saintly crew on the shores of les Saintes Maries de la Mer some forty miles to the west of Marseille, is but one more illustration of the amiable confusion that reigns in the land of tradition, a metaphor for wishful thinking that, without being its denial, is an essential locomotive of faith.

La pompe à l’huile

See fougasse above : Whereas the fougasse is generally shaped in irregular strips of crusty texture, flat, with holes that give the illusion of inexpert fretwork, the pompe à l’huile is a regular, round, unleavened “bread” of finest flour, olive oil, brown sugar, discreetly flavored with orange blossom and lemon. La pompe à l’huile is included among the thirteen desserts consumed on Christmas eve.


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