Navettes are sweet pastries from the City of Marseille (France) with a pleasant orange flower water (eau de fleur d'oranger) and olive oil flavor. Traditionally, they are baked in the shape of a small boat, hence the name 'navette', which is the French word for small barque. Navettes are oval-shaped, about 8 to 10cm long, with the ends tapered in.
The shape of the Navettes is meant to commemorate the arrival of St Lazarus and the two 'Marys', St Mary Magdalene and St Martha, who are said to have arrived in Provence on the 2nd of February about 2000 years ago, in a wooden navette, giving their name to the town of 'Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer'.
At the bakery 'Le Four des Navettes', near the Abbey of St. Victor in the heart of Marseille, navettes have been baked continuously since 1781. They are traditionally eaten after the Candlemas Day procession (Fête de la Chandeleur) on February 2 after they were blessed by The Archbishop of Marseille.
In the old days, navettes were traditionally bought by the dozen, one for each month of the year, and then taken home with the famous blessed candles whose flame protected homes and stables from lightning and other evils.
The pastry's origin has always been associated with the Candlemas (aka Candelmass) celebrations of the nearby Abbey of St Victor (Abbaye Saint-Victor de Marseille). Based on the story that the navette symbolizes the little bark that brought the saints to the Provençal coast, Monsieur Aveyrous, who founded his famous bakery in 1781, decided to make his delicious little pastries in the shape of a boat. While the below recipe may not disclose every one of Monsieur Aveyrous' secrets, you will nevertheless find it hard to resist these special treats with the flavors of orange flower water (Orangen-Blütenwasser), mild olive oil, a bit of orange zest and some vanilla.
Candelmas is a day that holds many different customs. People used to believe that Candelmas Day predicted the weather for the rest of the winter. Accordingly, weather proverbs express the idea that a bright and sunny Candelmas day means that winter is not over yet, whereas a stormy day means that most of winter is over:
‚If Candelmas Day be fair and bright, winter will have another fight. If Candelmas Day brings cloud and rain, winter won’t come again.‘
And Candelmas Day marks the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox.
Candelmas is one of the oldest feasts of the Christian church, celebrated since the 4th century AD in Jerusalem. Candlemas, also known as the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus Christ and the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, is a Christian Holy Day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple. It falls on February 2, which is traditionally the 40th day of and the conclusion to the Christmas–Epiphany season. In the past, it was therefore customary for Christians to remove their Christmas decorations only on Candlemas. On this second day of February, many parishioners also bring their candles, sometimes baskets full of candles, to their local church, where they are blessed and then used for the rest of the year, for Christians, these blessed candles serve as a symbol of Jesus Christ, who referred to Himself as the Light of the World.
Candlemas is also considered the day of crêpes, or as we refer to them here in the Rhineland 'Kreppchen'. Tradition attributes this custom to Pope Gelasius I, who had pancakes distributed to pilgrims arriving in Rome.
Navettes de Saint Victor
(yields about 36 to 40 navettes)
- 200g superfine (baking) sugar
- 8g pure vanilla sugar
- 2 eggs (L), free-range or organic
- a pinch of fine sea salt
- 3 tbsp orange flower water (I recommend that use your personal judgment and taste preference here as there are a lot of different types and varities of orange flower waters available that range greatly in taste and quality)
- zest of orange, organic and/or un-treated
- 6 tbsp olive oil (I recommend that you use a mild one, suitable for baking that will not overpower but harmonize with the flavor from the orange zest and orange flower water)
- 500g AP (plain) flour (while somewhat less traditional, I also baked these a few times using white spelt flour, use that if you prefer spelt over wheat flour)
- 1 tsp milk
- In a bowl, whisk together the sugar, vanilla sugar, eggs and pinch of salt until the mixture is pale and fluffy (about 2 minutes).
- Stir in the orange flower water and orange zest, then gently fold in the olive oil.
- Gradually add the flour. Start with a spatula, then you will have to finish off with your hands to make sure the dough is properly mixed. If it is too moist, add a bit more flour but it will still have a very slight stickiness. Cover with a clean tea towel and leave to rest for an hour at room temperature.
- Preheat the oven to 180°C (350°F). Line two baking sheets with baking parchment.
- Roll the dough into two long rolls, then cut into equal pieces (or weigh the dough and form 36 to 40 equal pieces). Roll each piece into a ball, then form into a sausage about 10cm long. Transfer to the baking sheets, then pinch the ends and use a sharp knife to cut along the length of the navette. Gently push the sides slightly open – it should look like a barque.
- Lightly brush the navettes with milk, then put the baking sheet in the oven, one after the other.
- Bake for about 12 to 15 minutes, turning half-way to get an even color. When done, cool on a wire rack.
The texture is somewhat like the Italian 'biscotti', as they are made with egg as the binding agent, but perhaps a bit less hard and crunchy. The French like to dunk these dry, crisp cookies into wine, coffee or tea. While orange blossom water is traditional, there are other flavors emerging, with one of the more popular being anisseed. You could also swap out some of the flower for almond meal, or use melted butter instead of the olive oil (which makes the cookies a bit more tender) but, personally, I quite like the flavors of a good mild olive oil and orange and rather enjoy the traditional version.
If you make these lovely cookies, trust me, the fun bit is in the shaping. You just roll them into a sausage, pinch the ends, then slice along them. You can open them up a little bit, and then they will open up further during baking. They end up looking live a cross between little loaves of bread and a boat. I have also seen different sizes of navettes ranging from big to bite-sized but settled on 10cm dough rolls.
Please note that this blog post is part of my series for a 'local' radio station, where, throughout the years, I present different baked goods that are closely tied to various holidays and seasons. If you are interested, have a LOOK & LISTEN (in German) HERE.
The various recipes of my series can be found here:
- in January, for Three Kings Day (Dreikönigstag) two kinds of Galette des Rois (Dreikönigskuchen) (HERE)
- for Lent (Fastenzeit) Lenten Soup with Lenten Beugel (Fastenbeugel) (HERE)
- for Good Friday (Karfreitag) the delicious Hot Cross Buns (HERE)
- for Pentecost /Whitsun (Pfingsten) the fun Allgäu Bread Birds (Allgäuer Brotvögel) (HERE)
- for the beginning of the summer vacation, the lovely Sacristains (Almond & Sugar Puff Pastry Sticks) (HERE)
- for St Christopher's Day (St Christophorus), the energy-packed Müsli Power Bars (Müsli Energieriegel) (HERE)
- for Mary's Assumption Day (Mariä Himmelfahrt) my Tear & Share Herb Bread (Kräuterbrot) (HERE)
- for Mary’s Birthday (Mariä Geburt) some very pretty Mary’s Sweet Rolls (Süße Marienküchlein) (HERE)
- for Thanksgiving (Erntedankfest) a delicious and seasonal Thanksgiving Apple Tart with Frangipane (Erntedank Apfeltarte mit Mandelcreme) (HERE)
- for Halloween a Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake (Kürbis-Gewürzkuchen)
- for St Martin's Day (Martinsfest) the cheerful Sweet Dough Men (Weckmänner) (HERE)
- for St Andrew's Day (Andreastag) a classic Petticoat Tails Shortbread (HERE)
- for Christmas Day (Weihnachten) these Traditional German Gingerbread (Elisenlebkuchen) (HERE)
- for New Year's Eve a New Year's Eve Pretzel (Neujahrsbretzel)
- and for Candelmas Day (Mariä Lichtmess) some delightful Navettes de Saint Victor (HERE) - more delicious treats to come very soon.