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Armchair Uzès

la Vie Quotidienne

décembre 2003

Christmas calls for thirteen desserts
Les treize desserts de Provence

Thirteen desserts are a Christmas ritual in Provence, a tradition that bears further examination. How can anyone, even the French, eat 13 desserts at one sitting? Here’s a little inside info.
     After Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, family and friends gather at home for le gros souper, a light meal of shellfish, fish and vegetables (and of course delicious wine), followed by les treize desserts, the thirteen desserts. Why thirteen? As in most cases with food in France, rituals are filled with symbols; in this case, the thirteen represents Christ and his twelve apostles.
     How does one properly serve this traditional fare? Most important is that the 13 must all be served at once, and everyone must taste all of them. But don’t panic, these aren’t elaborate cream and sugar laden works of art; rather they are the everyday delights that are awarded nobility status for this special season.

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Caliss4.jpg (54391 bytes)

Fruits, nuts, calissons, cookies...
all part of the Christmas dessert tradition.

     There are specific guidelines for the composition of the array. There must be a selection of dried fruits and nuts, representing the robe colors of mendicant religious orders: raisins for the Dominicans; dried figs for the Franciscans; walnuts for the Augustines; and almonds for the Carmelites. Fresh fruits are also served: winter pears, apples, plums, quince, clementines or mandarin oranges, even a few grapes from this year’s harvest. Both light and dark nougats grace the dessert table, along with candied fruits and the famous calissons of Aix, that almond/honey/melon candy that is special to Provence. The folks of Marseille always include a pompe à l’huile, a fougasse bread of olive oil flavored with anise and orange-flower water, that must be broken, never cut or sliced, to avoid financial ruin in the coming year. Fruit tarts and special breads round out the possibilities.
     Thirteen desserts, thirteen different tastes, all in one sitting. After this, it’s time to shut things down for the night so that St. Nicolas can continue the work he’s been doing since his feast day, December 6 (and which he’ll continue to do until January 6, the Feast of Kings). An extensive menu of desserts for an extended Noel celebration. Vive le dessert…vive la Provence!

 


Dictation for the masses
La Grande Dictée

Those of us subjected to years of French language study remember with fear and loathing the dreaded Friday morning dictation that was the bane of our existence in French class. “Prenez une feuille de papier, un stylo…alors, la dictée!
    But in
France, la Grande Dictée is more than just a rigor of education, it has become a major media event, a mix of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the annual Spelling Bee and the Academy Awards. For the past twenty years, thousands of francophones have participated in this international language competition to see who will be awarded la Trophée on national television and radio each March.
   In early 2004, Americans have a chance to join in the fun. Following a daylong competition on January 16, 2004, five lucky winners (the best of the bunch) will be sent to compete in the March finals in
Paris. Bernard Pivot, the Trophée’s correctness maven, the dictator of la Grande Dictée, and a media star in his own right, will be at the City University of NY studios to read la Dictée to local contestants willing to undergo the trial. Good luck to all!

 


  You can find info on the New York dictation event
at the French Embassy’s website.

If you'd like to take a practice dictée, visit les Trophées de la Langue Française website.
Bon courage!



More flooding in the south
Encore les inondations

Another round of serious floods hit the south of France in early December, wiping out roads and cutting off water supplies to hundreds of thousands of area residents and businesses. From Marseille to Lyon, from Arles to Nimes, the Rhone valley rushed over its banks and over homes, fields and routes.

Left, the flooded A54 between Nimes and Arles December '03

     This year’s flooding of the Rhone and its feeders caused the shutdown of the A54, the autoroute that runs from Nîmes through Arles toward Marseille; it may not be open to traffic for weeks to come as they attempt to drain and then rebuild. Travelers should check on route conditions if driving on southern autoroutes this winter.
     Word from locals in Uzès is that the situation wasn’t as bad as the September 2002 flood in which dozens lost their lives, millions of euros of property damage was reported, and that year’s wine harvest was essentially ruined. Nonetheless, this year's floods and mudslides caused more than two dozen communities in the Gard, primarily in the Rhone valley, to be declared national disaster areas.
     Thinking about the destruction to the A54, we’re reminded that last year’s terrible flooding of the Gardon river caused water to rise dramatically through the 2000-year-old Pont du Gard without any damage to its structure. That engineering marvel held up mightily in the rushing water. Even the 16th century Pont St. Nicholas upstream didn’t fare as well, having to be closed for repairs for more than seven months after the flooding. Modern vs. medieval vs. ancient:  much to be said here for the older the better, yes?

If you’d like to see photos of this year’s floods, go to  the MidiLibre’s Les Inondations en Images special.

PontduGardflood.jpg (176402 bytes)
Water rises under the Pont du Gard in September '02
The older, the better for holding up to disasters?
Before and after, September '02 for the Pont-St-Nicolas

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More café music from Paris
La musique des cafés parisiens
Legends of French chanson join exquisite new voices for an enchanting musical sojourn to the cafes of Paris. Putumayo has released French Café, a collection of classic and modern French music that will transport the listener to the romantic streets of Paris . The album features some of the greatest names in the history of French music as well as new artists who are inspired by classic chanson, gypsy jazz and musette.
     This great new CD includes performances by renowned French '60s icons like Serge Gainsbourg, Georges Brassens, Brigitte Bardot, Jane Birkin and Barbara, and contemporary musicians who have been adding new energy, such as Paris Combo, Enzo Enzo, and Baguette Quartette. Sounds like a great mix of old and new!

 


Joyeux Noel et Bonne Année!

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