Wednesday 10 December 2014

A-travelling we will go -- The 13 Desserts of Christmas in Provence - a finger-lickin' post. Photos! Recipes!

Hi all!
This will probably be my last post till after Christmas, so it's long. You might like to read it in installments, hahaha.

"A traveller without knowledge is a bird without wings," so said Sa'di, Gulistan (1258). 

Do you, like me, research your trips before boarding the plane to your next destination, or do you prefer to wing it? Research brings up the most delicious prospects such as the one I'm sharing with you today.

To me, the 'South of France' is a magical phrase. I tend to hit the South of France in winter where it provides a great getaway from the much colder climate of Paris.

The twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower in Paris at Christmas time.
At the Arc de Triomphe roundabout.

A view from Castle Hill in Nice in the South of France, showing the terracotta rooftops and some of the waterfront buildings along the Promenade des Anglais.

Christmas lights in Monaco

Nice, Monaco and Provence are wonderful places to thaw out as the Mediterranean keeps them warmer than the north. Nice and Monaco are crowded and busy, albeit awfully cute, but in Provence you can find vast areas that are wild and empty, quite like Australia. There's peace and silence, there's colourful markets, there's room to breathe and the air is clean as you travel the back roads. I'm sorry I haven't seen the lavender fields in July, but I've seen the ordered rows in December which is a fabulous time to be in Provence because of one tradition which really appeals to me...

It's a Provençal tradition where for Christmas Eve dinner, you eat thirteen desserts! Can you believe that? I love dessert and the idea of eating thirteen desserts for a Christmas lunch is enough to make me want to move to France, well, just another reason...
Like many traditions, the 13 desserts of Provence tradition starts as a recreation of a religious scene of the Last Supper with Jesus Christ and the twelve apostles with each course representing each attendee.

The major meal takes place on Christmas Eve. The table is ceremoniously laid with three white tablecloths one on the top of the other, garnished with three candles and three saucers of the wheat of Saint Barbara, representing the Holy Trinity.

The first part of the meal which is eaten before Midnight Mass, consists of seven very plain dishes served buffet style, symbolising the seven sorrows of the Virgin Mary. An extra place is set for a beggar who might come to the door.    
Any self respecting restaurant in Provence will happily serve the traditional thirteen desserts, but the French like to do things their way. The idea is to begin by sipping a Pastis aperitif from the South of France, a deceptively aniseedy drink that looks like a lemon drink but is pure rich aniseed. I think it's an acquired taste. I'd prefer a Kir Royale (champagne and creme de cassis).
Often the restaurant will start off with a mixed Provençal antipasto plate to share, but vegetarians beware. The  triangular slices of country style pork terrine are made from the pork shoulder and back fat with some liver and duck liver and Armagnac. It is hand chopped in order to get the pieces of pork fat in larger pieces. There is also an absolutely divine duck liver pate, one of my favourite things, which is flavoured with Grand Marnier, pork and Armagnac. This is made by pan frying it and it has an incredibly gorgeous texture-light but buttery and easily spread. 

Mixed Provençal antipasto
Dessert is eagerly anticipated but you have to wait --first you need a glass of rose from St Tropez to go with the traditional bouillabaisse which is paired with a sauce rouille and croutons. Did you know that the origins of bouillabaisse go back as far as 6000BC where it originated at the sea port of Marseilles? 
The best fish was sold at the markets and any leftovers or cheaper fish were made into Bouillabaisse so it had rather humble beginnings.
The 13 Desserts of a provencal Christmas Eve supper
Finally...time for the 13 desserts 
In the centre of the restaurant, plates of sweets are brought out and thank heavens they are petits fours sized desserts. When choosing the desserts for this tradition, I'm told there are four key components:
Step 1 - Something from Africa to represent the Three Wise Men (dates)
Step 2 - A nougat-usually a dark and a white nougat to signify evil versus good 
Step 3 - A sweet brioche which signifies breaking bread with others.
A provencal brioche des rois


Step 4 - Mendiants, which feature four nuts and dried fruit representing the monastic orders of the Dominicans, Augustinians, Franciscans and Carmelites, orders that have taken a vow of poverty. The nuts and fruit represent the colour of monastic robes. Traditionally they have raisins for the Dominicans, hazelnut for the Augustinians, fig for Franciscans and almonds for Carmelites.
Citrus is also featured in the 13 dessert menu as citrus is a popular item in Provence. Flowers like lavender and violet are also featured and it often comes in the form of a lavender panna cotta and a violet and lavender chocolate. Herbs such as fennel and tarragon are also used. Calissons are an item that are new to me and these come from Aix de Provence. These little diamond shaped morsels are made up of ground almonds, candied melon and a glaze of icing sugar and originate in the 15th century of Provence.
The desserts are accompanied by spiced mulled wine (vin cuit). 
Apparently families who skip the rigors of the Gros Souper still include the 13 desserts in their Christmas celebrations. Ready-made presentation baskets of the desserts are available to buy.

I won't be in Provence this Christmas. I'll be up at the beach house on the Sunshine Coast, where our tradition is to get together and eat seafood and lots of nibblies and desserts on the deck...and drink a bit of champagne and beer. This year I will be cooking many French-inspired desserts such as Tarte au Citron and Creme Brulee.

Today I made a batch of Bliss Balls and I'll share the recipe with you. Great for snacking on and quite healthy. 

(Don't get hassled by portion sizes--any size will do)
  • A large handful of activated almonds (or ordinary almonds)
  • A small handful of dates
  • A few dried figs (optional--I love figs)
  • A dessertspoon of raw cacoa dried chocolate (I use the proper stuff from the health food store). You can substitute ordinary cocoa.
  • About 3 large tablespoons of nut spread/butter (hazelnut, macadamia, whatever). If you're a fan of peanut butter (I'm not) you could use that.
In a blender or any kind of whizzer, zoom the almonds till they're nice and crushed.
Add all other ingredients except the nut spread. Zoom till nicely chopped. Then add nut spread and zoom till the mixture can be pressed together and holds a ball shape. (You can add a little juice or water if you can't get to that sticky stage. Or olive oil if you're from Italy, hahahaha).
Sprinkle some coconut on a board. Wet your hands and shape mixture into balls and roll in the coconut (or you can roll them in cacoa).
Refrigerate. Pop one in your mouth whenever you feel like a sweet treat. Amaze balls!!
  • I hope you enjoyed reading a little about Christmas traditions in Provence and here in Oz. 
  • What are your traditions for the holiday season?
Getting ready for Christmas at the beach house!
For those who've followed my melanoma journey, I now have had four removed! Ugh! Ouch! 

And thanks to those who've participated in WEP challenges this year. Hopefully we will find a way to resume in the New Year. 

Wednesday 3 December 2014

IWSG post - A First Page Checklist - would an editor or agent turn the page?

CLICK BADGE for more entries...
Hi all!

Welcome to another month of IWSG posts. Thanks to Alex J Cavanaugh and his assistants for running this helpful meme.

Those amongst us who have written unpublished novels, whether we've submitted them or not, might, like me, feel very insecure about sending the ms off to a publisher. I found this checklist on the blog: Flogging the Quill, where published author and writers' helper Ray Rhamey offers all sorts of tips for unpublished writers, including a free public chapter critique.

I liked Ray's very comprehensive checklist to keep the editor/agent compelled to read on. It had me combing my first page for these elements...

A First-page Checklist

Do you have all these elements on your first page?
  • It begins connecting the reader with the protagonist
  • Something is happening. On a first page, this does NOT include a character musing about whatever.
  • What happens is dramatized in an immediate scene with action and description plus, if it works, dialogue.
  • What happens moves the story forward.
  • What happens has consequences for the protagonist.
  • The protagonist desires something.
  • The protagonist does something.
  • There’s enough of a setting to orient the reader as to where things are happening.
  • It happens in the NOW of the story.
  • Backstory? What backstory? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • Set-up? What set-up? We’re in the NOW of the story.
  • What happens raises a story question—what happens next? or why did that happen?

  • What about you? Would you add anything to the checklist?
  • Do you disagree with Rhamey on any point?

Thanks for taking time out for your holiday preparations and coming by. I hope you'll visit more blogs today.