The Lou Messugo Blog - life in the south of France from a British/Australian TCK's perspective, bringing you French culture, travel on the Côte d'Azur and beyond, expat issues and a little bit of je ne sais quoi all mixed up with a hefty dose of photography.

Food & Drink

Thirteen desserts: Christmas in Provence

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Christmas is a time for traditions and while France probably doesn’t spring to mind immediately when thinking about the festive period and its traditions, there are plenty here.  And even more so, plenty in the south which surprised me when I first moved to the Alpes-Maritimes.  I don’t know why it should be so surprising, this is after all a Catholic country but I associate Christmas traditions much more with northern Europe, particularly Scandinavia, UK and Germany.

13 Christmas dessertsLet me tell you about one of the main ones which I discovered thanks to the local Christmas Fair, Noëls du Monde, a few years ago.  Provence celebrates Christmas with a special meal on the 24th of December known as  “le gros souper” or the big supper.  It is a meatless meal, considered a “repas maigre” (light meal) often beginning with a garlic soup, followed by a simple fish dish.  But the focus is the dessert, or all thirteen desserts to be precise. 

The table is set with three tablecloths and three candlesticks to represent the Holy Trinity and most of the dishes are steeped in symbolism.  Numbers have become important, thirteen being representative of the Last Supper with Jesus Christ and his 12 Apostles. But surprisingly it was not always the way with the first reference to thirteen specifically seen around about a hundred years ago.  The food itself, however, dates back to Pagan times and has taken on Christian symbolism over time.  Each dish is innately Provencal; simple, unadorned, fresh and seasonal and you’ll see that each “dish” is for the most part in fact really just one type of fruit or nut.

The first courses of the gros souper are eaten before Midnight Mass but the celebratory 13 desserts come afterwards, late at night.  They begin with walnuts, almonds, raisins and dried figs representing the four monastic orders Augustine, Carmelite, Dominican and Franciscan respectively.  Dates, symbolising Christ, are important and are the only food not grown in Provence.  As for the eight other dishes you’ll find regional differences but most will include a selection of dried and fresh fruit:  apples, pears, oranges, clementines and grapes.  Two types of nougat are served, White Nougat symbolising good and Black Nougat symbolising evil, and there is usually some candied fruit too such as quince jelly.  A delicious light flatbread called pompe à l’huile (also called Fougasse) made of olive oil and orange flower water is eaten as an accompaniment and must be torn not sliced, otherwise financial ruin is predicted for the coming year.  Other specialities may include marrons glacés, calissons, bugnes and oreillettes but these are all recent additions being too expensive for the  ordinary people among whom this tradition began.

The meal is accompanied by vin cuit (fortified wine), all the dishes are served at the same time and everyone must try at least a little of everything on offer.  Finally the crumbs are left on the table which is not cleared away for three days in order to feed the souls of deceased family members.  

So, what do you think?  The idea of thirteen desserts sounds enormous but if you stick to the traditional ingredients it is in fact a reasonably light and healthy option during what is usually a time of rich over-indulgence.  Bon appétit et bonnes fêtes!

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A gastronomic tour of Nice

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I don't often go on organised tours, particularly in my home area, but when a friend suggested one she wanted to try out, all about food, and asked if I'd go with her, I thought why not?  A Saturday morning of tasting my way around one of my favourite cities, Nice, without bored children, sounded very appealing. And I'm always on the look out for interesting things to recommend to guests in the gîte, so the decision was made.

promenade des anglaisOur group met on the Promenade des Anglais, under a weak October sun with the usually-present blue sky threatening to be swallowed up by cloud. After an initial snack of delicious orange blossom fougasse and introductions (there were 7 of us - 4 tourists from California, Taiwan and Poland, Karin and me, the "locals", and Gustav our adopted Niçois but originally Swedish guide) we quickly moved into the Hotel Negresco and the "opulence" began. 

Let me explain: the tour focuses on two very different sides of Nice and its history, both cultural and gastronomic.  It looks at the "opulence" and the "pure". Nowadays Nice and the Côte d'Azur are mostly associated with wealth, extravagance and opulence; they are often seen rotondepredominantly as a millionaire's playground.  But it hasn't always been this way and Gustav, our very amiable guide, was at pains to point out the "pure" (or poor) side.  This is far less known and really what the tour concentrates on.  However, I just said we'd started on the opulence and what better place than the iconic belle époque hotel situated right on the Prom.  This hotel, that looks like a wedding cake, is as famous a landmark as you can get in Nice. It's 5 star and seriously quirky, but I'd actually never been in.  So, we found ourselves in La Rotonde, a bistro decorated as a children's merry-go-round.  It's as OTT as you can get! Whether you think it's kitch or kooky, grotesque or groovy, it's certainly not ordinary.  The hotel itself was built at the beginning of the twentieth century but the Rotonde bistro was only decorated as a carousel in the 1980s.

café gourmandUnder the watchful eyes of the merry-go-round horses we snacked on what I consider the best recent invention in French gastronomy - the "café gourmand".  It is an superlatively indulgent way to have a little of everything!  Basically a café gourmand, a greedy coffee, is a coffee (however you like it, short and black/long and white) with a selection of the day's deserts in miniature.  Depending on the establishment you get between 3 and 5, sometimes even 6, mini desserts.  Heaven for a sweet tooth like me!  While we ate, Gustav regaled us with stories about the hotel's history - very colourful indeed and perhaps the subject of another post in its own right.

Auer chocolaterieAfter leaving the Negresco next on the tour was the fabulous Maison Auer, a traditional confiserie (sweet shop), worth visiting for its ornate Florentine decor alone.  Established in 1820 by a young Swiss man who was attracted to Nice by its abundance of Mediterranean fruit, the company is now run by the 5th generation of the same family.  Initially and still famous for its candied fruit the current owner of Auer is a Master Chocolate-maker too.  The tour, however, focused on the unusual candied fruit such as kiwi and angelica which we got to taste in the grandiose surroundings of this very original sweet shop. 

Karin wine tastingI won't go into the detail of every single thing we ate and did during the morning for fear of ruining the surprise for any future clients.  But I will say that we got to sample some local wine in an amusing experiment about its price and while we covered a fairly large area of Nice it wasn't tiring mainly due to Gustav's unerring enthusiasm, information and funny stories.  We ate in ordinary cafés, snacking on regional specialities that proved Gustav's point about Nice's paucity in high gastronomic terms but not in taste.  Everything we ate was simple, fresh and totally delicious.  I will mention one of my favourite Niçois foods though as I love it and apart from anything else want to include a picture of it! Socca.  Nothing to do with the Caribbean music genre, nor football, socca is a heavenly thin pancake made out of chickpea flour and olive oil and served warm with lashings of black pepper. It's cooked in an enormous woodfired oven, on a wide round dish about 60 cm across, and served up in bite-sized scrapings, often to be eaten on the go.  It's as "pure" as you can get, found nowhere else in France and it's absolutely scrummy.

socca nice tour

Being a "local" on the tour and not a visitor I knew about all the food we ate but I didn't know nearly so much about the history of Nice and its lack of gastronomy.  When you think of French food you tend to think of rich sauces oozing in butter and cream, extravagant desserts again heavy on dairy, a vast choice of cheese, flaky pastries made with plenty of butter...are you seeing the theme here?  But the Nice area has no dairy products.  The climate is too harsh for cows, it's Gustavhot and the landscape is relatively barren, so the only small amount of cheese produced locally is chevre, goats' cheese.  In fact it is because of this harsh landscape that Nice cuisine has such a low place in the French gastronomic league table.  The County of Nice only became part of France in 1860, having led a separate and somewhat isolated existence as part of the Kingdom of Savoie until this time.  Surrounded by mountains and the sea it was cut off from the rest of the Kingdom and even the sea was feared as the route from which invaders arrived. So despite its prime location on the shores of the Mediterranean, Nice turned its back on this vast wealth, not exploiting this obvious natural resource and to this day there isn't a fish market here.  The climate is perfect for olive production, citrus fruit, many vegetables and flowers but not milk and meat.

I thoroughly enjoyed A Taste of Nice and would happily recommend it as an original way of exploring this great city.  I learnt a lot and I ate a lot!  Take Gustav's advice; go with an empty belly and don't plan on eating lunch as you won't need it after all you'll have eaten on the tour.

*** UPDATE 2015 *** I have been informed by Gustav that the tour no longer visits the Hotel Negresco


photo of socca courtesy of A Taste of Nice

Disclaimer, I was offered this tour for free to review but all opinions are my own.



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Apéro time

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bubblesThis is a subject close to my heart! L'apéro or apéritif is a crucial and delightful part of daily life in France. Whether it's a simple drink before you start your meal at or a whole evening of drinks and nibbles, it's important to understand what to order and what to expect.

"Désirez-vous un apéritif messieurs-dames?"  Would you like drink before your meal ladies and gentlemen? Pretty much all meals in a restaurant will start with this question (well assuming you're in a group of men and women.  If only men then cross out the "dames" and if only women cross out the messieurs!) Obviously it's not obligatory to have an apéro but it's very normal.  Here are some of the more common drinks to ask for in a restaurant.  

  • monaco apéroUn Kir, a cocktail of white wine and (traditionally) blackcurrant liqueur though there is often a choice of other flavours such as raspberry (framboise), blackberry (mûre) or peach (pêche)
  • Une coupe de champagne, a glass of champagne
  • Un Kir Royale, a kir made with champagne instead of white wine
  • Un demi, a small bottled beer (lager), 25cl
  • Une pression, a draught beer, most often lager, though you can ask what beers are available on tap
  • Un Ricard or un Pastis, a provencal drink made of aniseed usually refered to by the brandname of your preference.  The two drinks are very similar though afficionados will always have a definite favourite.
  • Un whiskey, scotch is more often drunk before a meal than after and very rarely by women.  It will be served neat (you'll be asked whether you want ice or not) but if you want water or soda with it you'll have to ask.  For soda ask for Perrier.

Other drinks commonly ordered in bars though not necessarily before a meal in a restaurant include 

  • Un panaché, shandy in English (lager and lemonade)
  • Un Monaco, like a panaché but with a drop of grenadine cordial making it bright red and extra sweet
  • Un verre de vin (rouge/blanc/rosé), a glass or red/white/rosé wine
  • Un gin'tonic (don't say the "and"!)

rosé apéro at Lou MessugoIt is perfectly acceptable to order the bottle of wine you want to drink with your meal as an apéritif but just ordering a glass of wine before your meal is not common.   As a bit of an aside as this is not about apéritifs, you can always ask for tap water in a restaurant for free and don't have to have the expensive bottled water proposed if you don't want it. Just ask for "un carafe d'eau" even if Evian/Perrier/Badoit are offered.  You can't be refused.

Now for the "apéro" at a private house.  To be invited to an apéro or apéritif means to be invited for drinks but there will always be some form of finger food on offer from nuts and crisps to delicious homemade savoury cakes, dips, canapés etc.  Sometimes the food can be copious enough and the apéro long enough to be considered the whole evening meal.  If this is the intention of the host and not just the outcome of a successful gathering then it might be called an apéro-dinatoire.  As the name suggests, the drinks will be served with enough fingerfood and the occasion will go on well into the evening that you won't need to plan on a proper meal afterwards.  You'll be stuffed!

apéro dinatoire Lou MessugoWhat has become known as "wine o'clock" in English is "apéro time" (Franglais) or "l'heure de l'apéro" in French.  Having an apéritif with friends has definitely become my favourite way to entertain.  It's less stressful than preparing a full-blown dinner party, children are nearly always involved and the timing is more relaxed than dinner. We seem to host or go to one at least once a week and often more.  Add to this the obligatory glass of rosé every evening at home and what it is not good for is my waistline nor liver but that's too bad!



Linking this post to #FoodieTuesday and Tasty Tuesdays


Tagged in: apéritif apéro drinks
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Travelling apricots

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Lou Messugos 1st apricotsIt's apricot season and I'm in heaven.  Juicy, soft apricots bursting with Mediterranean warmth and flavour are all around and this year we had our own first crop. Twenty-six fruits to be precise but out of little things big things grow, and you've got to start somewhere.  We only planted the tree last year

For me apricots have always conjured up "land of milk and honey" images; paradisical lands overflowing with almonds, dates and pomegranates along side the apricots.  More North African and Middle Eastern Med than European Med.  I associate them with the delicious cuisines of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon so I'm delighted to find they grow so well in my back yard.

Apricots are one of those fruits that don't seem to travel well; they are almost consistently disappointing when bought in England.  Picked too early and shipped from warmer climes they are usually rock hard, floury and flavourless.  Whereas here they are soft, juicy and packed with flavour.  A ripe apricot is one of the best fruits ever and being small they are just so easy to pig out on.

abricots marchéI think my Aussie mum became a victim of the disappointing apricot once settled in England as she said to me a couple of years ago that she'd barely had a good one outside Australia.  I was determined to bring Apricot Joy back into her life so I decided to send her some of the very best I'd tasted, from a local organic producer in Cagnes sur Mer.  I remember my aunt in tropical north Queensland used to send a box of home-grown mangoes to my Gran in Sydney every year so it seemed like an entirely reasonable thing to do.

So, when I send a parcel abroad I usually fore-go the expensive pre-paid boxes, using good old-fashioned brown paper.  But this time I reckoned the rigid packaging and the the official size of the box would help get my precious cargo to its destination quickly and without un-necessary delay.  I'd carefully chosen each fruit to be fully ripe in 3-4 days' time and then individually wrapped them in kitchen paper, padded the box with bubble wrap, written the address in my best and clearest writing and sent it off without another thought.  As it was a surprise for my mum I hadn't mentioned anything though when I hadn't Lou Messugos 1st jamheard from her after 6 days I thought something must be up as it wasn't like her not to thank.  I also thought that if they hadn't turned up already and arrived in a day or two she might wonder why I'd sent her a box of rotting fruit.  Needless to say she hadn't received anything.  That was in June.  In October, months after giving up hope, the parcel arrived - heaving, liquid and highly alcoholic!  It had been via Argentina.  "Argentine" not "Angleterre"!  I've never sent fresh fruit through the post again; my mum just has to visit in apricot season.

And now I make jam to conserve the flavour of the gods.

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