Welcome to The Aix-Files

Thanks for checking out The Aix-Files, my

blog postings inspired by my time in and around

Aix-en-Provence and the Vaucluse. The spot includes travel tips,

discoveries of local food and wine, recipes,

cultural events, interviews and historical

tidbits about Southern France. Enjoy!

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Santons

Michael couldn’t have been less interested in the santons. When the family was visiting, Mom suggested we make an excursion to Aubagne, a town about a half an hour from Aix, near Marseille, where they make these cute little clay figurines that decorate the Provençal crèches at Christmastime. She thought 11-year-old Michael would be excited to see them. Well at least Mom and I enjoyed the elaborate display at La Petite Monde de Marcel Pagnol. Aubagne, it turns out, is also the home of Marcel Pagnol, author of those wonderfully evocative stories like Jean de Florette et Manon des Sources. All of his stories and movies are set in the Garlaban, the hills behind Aubagne dotted with rosemary, thyme and scrubby oak. In the spring I will look forward to hiking in his footsteps. On this particular excursion, we appreciated the amazing craftsmanship of the artisans who built vast landscapes and set them with santons to recreate the various scenes from Pagnol stories. Among them were a humpbacked Gerard Dépardieu, and Yves Montand in a vest and hat (like Jim's, above), just as they appeared in the movie Jean de Florette.

The tradition of santons dates back to the time of the Revolution, when the custom of presenting pastoral plays was banned. An artist from Marseille cleverly decided to recreate the story with clay figurines. The tradition spread and now santons are a treasured part of every Provençal household.

Here in Aix there is a whole market devoted to the santons, with literally thousands on display. In these days just before Christmas, it’s hard to nudge your way in for a close look, as all of the Aixois are busy adding to their collections. The tradition is to build a crèche tableau little by little every year. It’s still fun to push your way through the crowd, as it’s so festive and it is simply impossible to wipe the smile off your face. I received my first tiny santon, a woman selling calissons (the favourite confection of Aix) at our first Christmas party.

Jim and I decided to exchange santons for Christmas. He now has a tambourinaire named Guillaume. He is well-dressed, à la mode arlésienne. He plays the galoubet (provençal flute with three holes), and the tambourin (long field drum with snare). He is the master of the farandole of the santons and of provençal folklore. He is happy and caring and generous with his talents. He performs morning and night and encourages others to promenade along with him.

I have a santon of a woman selling lavender. She is dressed in blue – with a bonnet – with a bunch of lavender in her arm. And my newest gift is a santon of la femme au berceau, a peasant woman, carved and painted in amazing detail, including beautiful eyelashes and a flowing apron with tiny decorations. She had heard about the birth of a baby in the straw and was one of the first to arrive on the scene. She had been so moved she brought as a gift the most useful and the most precious object that she owned: a cradle, her son's cradle, which she offered with her memories and the love of a mother.

“WHERE CAN I FIND CARNATION EVAPORATED MILK IN AIX-EN-PROVENCE?” - my recent entry on google. No luck. Since we’re in France, I generally seek out local Provençal recipes. But for that particular party from my French class that I mentioned above, we were each asked to bring a gift and a dish from our home country. Our offering was my Mom’s famous perogies requiring Carnation milk. I made do with French cream mixed with some milk and it worked out just fine.

On the appointed evening, we all met at the apartment of a friend of one of the teachers, who is a midwife. So the rooms were decorated with interesting anatomical posters. The meal started with toasts with tapenade, caviar d'aubergine,and gougères, all presented by our teachers, Chantal and Fabienne. Then they passed around a shrimp ring (Holland) and potato latkes (US). I asked when the main course would be served, and, it turned out, the perogies were the main course. Which everyone loved. They were followed by cookies (Germany) and Irish Coffee (Ireland). We even attempted a sing-along with some French Noels.

We also attended two other Christmas parties with our new French friends. I brought perogies again, and now everyone is demanding “la recette des raviolis”.

RECIPE OF THE WEEK: MOM’S FAMOUS PEROGIESMom developed and perfected this recipe when we were very young. As Fridays were traditionally meatless, she always made perogies stuffed with potato and cheese. They are still one of our favourite dishes on Christmas Eve. Her dough is amazingly supple. Her trick – now revealed to all – is to double-roll the dough. This means, you roll out the dough, cut out circles with a small juice cup, then roll the circles out again to make them extra-thin. So in the end, you have lots of delicious filling without a heavy dough.

I made a full recipe recently and it made around 13 dozen or so (I didn’t actually count), but it should be enough for 25 for Christmas Eve dinner.

You could halve the recipe if you have fewer than 25 guests.

It is good to have at least one helper for this project, or preferably a team: someone to grate the cheese while you mash the potatoes (or push them through a food mill, as I did, since we don’t have a potato masher), and someone to stuff and pinch the perogies while you roll out and roll the dough again.

One of my favourite memories is our Sunday before Christmas making the perogies – Mom, Corinne and me. Normally Mom makes the filling a day in advance, so it has a chance to chill. Then on Sunday we listen to Euro-Radio Christmas all day on CBC Radio and roll, double roll, stuff and pinch. The other helper is Dad, who transports trays of the perogies to the freezer. When they are solid they can be bagged and held in the freezer for the big day. Jim arrives later to do the wushky, the tiny mushroom-filled ones, that get dropped into the borscht.

5 lbs potatoes (2.2 kg)
Two large onions, chopped finely and fried in a bit of butter
1&1/2 lbs of grated cheese, like old cheddar [here in France I used 1&1/4 lb of cantal mixed with some comté]
Boil, drain and mash potatoes. Add onions and cheese while the potatoes are hot.
S & P as needed.
Taste – it should be very flavourful.

This mixture must cool in the fridge before filling.

6 Cups flour
2 tsp salt
1/2 Cup butter
2 1/2 Cups Carnation Evaporated Milk

Mix flour and salt in large bowl.
Add butter, cut into small pieces, and work in with your fingertips,
as you would for pie dough, until it is grainy.
Add milk and work into flour with a wooden spoon,
and then by hand, just to bring it together in a ball.
Cover and let rest for about 20 minutes.

Then make the perogies in batches. Cut off a manageable pieces of dough, roll it out on a floured surface. Cut out small circles with a juice glass. Then re-roll them to make them extra thin.

To fill the perogies: hold a circle in one hand, put a rounded spoonful of filling in with the other hand, then pinch it closed, very carefully, very tightly, being sure not to rip the dough and being careful that there are no air-holes, dusting your fingers with flour as you go (this helps the seal). Lay the perogies on baking sheets lined with a dish cloth dusted with flour. Cook immediately or freeze.

TO COOK: Bring a huge pot of water to boil. Add salt. Carefully drop in the perogies, 1 or 2 dozen at a time. Wait for them to come to a boil. Reduce heat so they simmer gently. When they rise to the surface, wait three minutes, then remove them with a slotted spoon – carefully – to a casserole waiting with a bit of melted butter in it.
Meanwhile, cook lots of chopped green onion gently in a small sauté pan with some butter. As you transfer the perogies to the casserole, spoon in some onion and butter. This is not a diet dish, so be sure you add enough butter to prevent the perogies from sticking to each other. Continue this process, using enough casserole dishes (you don’t want the perogies to be loaded in too thickly). You can keep the casseroles in a warm oven or wrapped in towels or blankets, shaking vigorously occasionally to keep them loose. Serve with sour cream, or crème fraîche if you are in France.


What we have been doing lately:
- Attended an English carol service at St. Sauveur Cathedral, probably the only English event we will seek out this year. The church was jammed to the rafters and it was very beautiful. We were all given candles when we arrived and at the end, while we sang Silent Night, they turned out all of the lights and some people walked through the church, lighting one candle in each row. Then everyone passed the light on to a neighbour, and by the time the carol ended, the church was fully lit.
-Went to our first truffle festival of the season in Rognes, about 20 km away. It was an extraordinary event with hundreds of vendors selling mountains of truffles.
-Visited the Aix Christmas Market every day, at all times of the day. While it is disappointingly commercial (aromatherapy and Venetian masks are among the offerings), it is still very atmospheric and enchanting, especially once it turns dark and the little wooden shacks are all lit up.

A la prochain,

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