Why Provence’s pompe à l’huile means Christmas to me – plus the recipe

A wonderful bread that used to be made by dumping flour into the olive mill to soak up the oil is a vital part of Christmas in rural south-east France

We lived in rural Provence for almost a decade and every Christmas Eve gradually reduced our consumption of imported mince pies, brandy snaps and liqueur-filled chocolates, replacing them with the Provençal tradition of Le Gros Souper. Despite its name, the meal is a display of restraint before the Christmas celebrations begin. It starts with a cleansing soup, aïgo boulido, boiled water with floating garlic slices, bay and sage leaves and a dash of olive oil. It’s surprisingly popular with my children, who drink it between chocolates and before the fish course, which is a salt cod and potato gratin served with courgettes, broccoli, anchovy paste, a boiled egg and aïoli sauce.

The fish needs soaking the day before in a milk bath. Abiding by tradition, we have three candles and three tablecloths (the Holy Trinity) and a large cloth to cover the buffet and desserts. Leftovers are not cleared away but remain on the table for any departed ancestors. This also makes the rush to midnight mass easier – France’s 8pm curfew is lifted only on Christmas Eve this year.

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