‘Tis the beginning of the holiday season in Provence. There are many long-standing traditions that are honored in this region, reflecting the close relationship with nature and how life is shaped by it. Of note is the fact that none of the holiday marketing, errr...make that "merrymaking" began before Halloween in these parts. No, aside from some cold weather trends in fashion, we have not been overrun by santa-themed stuff...no elves wrapping themselves around every mannequin in every window...in fact, not an elf in sight.
Here in Provence, we’re getting things kicked off with Ste. Barbe Day (The "e" at the end of "saint" signifies that this is a female saint. In fact, “Barbe” became “Barbara” officially in 1969 on the calendars.)
The tradition on the 4th of December is to plant some grains of wheat or lentils in a little cup on a bed of wet cotton. With careful watering between now until Christmas, there will be plenty of greenery for your crèche (or nativity scene) when you bring it out the week before Christmas Day.
The story of our French Barbara is borrowed from Roman and Greek legend. Experts are not in agreement with where the story took place...some say Egypt, some say Greece some say Turkey...or Rome or Tuscany, but they do seem to be in agreement that our Barbara lived during the 3rd century and had converted to Christianity against her father’s wishes. He subsequently locked her up in a tower. With a number of miracles occurring as a mark of her devotion, she continued to refuse to denounce her faith and was thrown in prison where she then endured tortures most brutal. In the end, her father took her to a mountain top to cut off her head with his own hands to finish her off but it was he who was struck by lightning. As a result, she became the patron saint of fire fighters and any profession involving fire or explosives as well as other dangerous occupations, like miners.
When the wheat planted on Ste. Barbe Day germinates successfully, in addition to having a lush prop in your crèche, it represents the agricultural yield of the year to come. With a good crop, one can expect to have a prosperous year ahead. As the wheat grows taller through the season, the high ends are tied together with a red ribbon or a piece of raffia. The Christmas table is decorated with the greens as well, and at the end of the season, the sprouted wheat is burned in the fireplace or planted – not simply tossed out. We’re talking about the symbol of life at the darkest, coldest point in the year...not something to simply "toss out"!
There is a richness in these traditions, a blend of both pagan and Christian rituals that were practiced for centuries by a population closely bound to nature through its agriculture. I find them to be charming and, yes, my wheat has been planted.
In addition to Ste. Barbe Day chez La Fourchette, I hope to be celebrating another major occurrence in the days ahead: a real dial tone – called a "tonalité" here in the ‘hood – that will signify that I have a working telephone and the transition from France Telecom to the new provider, Alice, will have been completed. As transitions go, this one is not going very well. A month of phone calls to Alice (when I can manipulate the receiver box so that I can get a temporary dial tone out) have connected me with very helpful and friendly staff, but no solutions. In addition, the fellow who has my number (and I his) also seems to be a very nice guy (my sister and several of my friends have all talked to him and have made the same assessment.) But really, as nice as everyone is, I’d really like my dial tone...and my phone number back.
Not sure if our Ste. Barbara is really qualified for this kind of work as it is not really very dangerous and so far there have been no fires, no explosions. But if she’s reading this and could get back to me on exactly which patron saint handles these kinds of mishaps, I’ll get right on it with the correct saintly connection. The good news is: (and I think even Ste. Barbara might be pleased with this one) I continue to learn very important lessons about surrendering to the mystery of life...in this case, that mystery would be the French customer service system: Things happen in their own time, at their own pace, in their own fashion, whether I get bent about it or not...so I simply decided on the "not" part this time.
Me, I’ve use the quiet time of no phone ringing to get that wheat planted and put together a tasty mix of wheat and lentils in this mac and cheese variation!
The hearty wheat and lentil combination get a tangy lift from the sun-dried tomatoes that blend nicely with the fresh taste of the zucchini. With the earthy notes of the wheat pasta, lentils and goat cheese, this is a good belly-warming dish for a dark cold day as we approach the winter solstice. It's also a way to honor Ste. Barbe as we wait to see if the new year will be bringing prosperity...or a better dollar/euro exchange...or a dial tone...which would qualify as abundance for some of us!
This dish would serve 2 or 3 people as a main vegetarian dish with a side salad. It would be delicious alongside a roasted chicken...or one of these:
Just another little sign of the season!
Gratin de pâtes complètes et lentilles corail, courgettes et chêvre frais
(Gratin of Whole Wheat Pasta, Coral Lentils, Zucchini and Goat Cheese)
Adapted from chef Laurence Salomon on France 3
To continue with my French practice, I watch the news at mid-day. Between local and national broadcasts, there is a brief cooking demonstration on France 3…et voilà: this gratin! Tasty and good for you and certainly a timely addition for our holiday kick-off.
1 cup whole wheat pasta, organic
1 goat cheese log
1/2 cup coral lentils
1/2 zucchini, grated lengthwise
3 petals of sun-dried tomatoes, softened in boiling water and minced
4 shallots, minced
2 pinches of turmeric
3 tablespoons of olive oil
gray sea salt to taste
Preheat the oven to 375º
1) Wash lentils in plenty of water to rinse them free of their starch.
2) Peel and mince finely the shallots.
3) Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a pan and sauté shallots until softened. Add tumeric and salt to taste then add the lentils and mix well. Add 1 1/2 cups of water and simmer for about 15 minutes.
4) Cook the pasta in boiling water for the time suggested on the package, al dente. Drain.
5) Add pasta to an ovenproof casserole and mix in the grated zucchini and minced sun-dried tomato. Add the lentils and a bit of their cooking liquid to moisten.
6) Top with chevre, cut in slices or pieces – as you prefer – and drizzle with remaining olive oil.
7) Heat for 20-25 minutes, until the goat cheese melts.
8) Serve immediately.