A calisson d'AixProvence, with its sun-soaked fruits and nuts, aromatic herbs and perfumed honeys and exotic North African influences, is perfectly poised to produce intensely flavoured, irresistible sweet treats.

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These are some of the best specialities from all over the region.

1. Calissons from Aix en Provence The calisson has been the patron sweet of Aix ever since - so the legend has it - it was created to celebrate the second marriage of King René, to Princess Jeanne de Laval in 1454.

Calissons d'AixAccording to the story, Princess Jeanne, 22, was unhappy at being hitched to the 45-year-old King. The calisson was conceived to cheer her up. It appears to have worked, since their union was a long and happy one. And ever since then, the calisson's classy almond shape and subtle taste have come to symbolise the city.

The calisson (pictured) is made from a paste of ground almonds, candied melon and orange peel on a thin layer of wafer, all covered with bright royal icing.

During the Great Plague of 1629-1630 some gullible (or greedy) souls thought that eating a calisson every day would protect them.

The ritual was perpetrated through the years by priests who, at festive times, would offer the sweets from their chalices in place of the host, chanting, "Venite ad calicem" ("Come to the chalice").

Some believe that this is the source of the calisson's name. Others trace it back to"calin" (cuddle), recalling that Good King René devised the sweet to seduce his new wife.

These various traditions are all commemorated each year in Aix on the first Sunday in September at the Bénédiction des Calissons (Blessing of the Calissons).

The day's festivities begin with a mass at the Cathedral of Saint Sauveur, featuring the repetition of the voeu Martelly, an historic vow made by a Joseph Martelly in 1630 at the end of the Great Plague to celebrate an annual mass in honour of the Virgin Mary.

During the afternoon there's provençal dancing on the place des Quatre Dauphins in the Mazarin Quarter followed by the formal ceremonial blessing of the calissons in front of the Church of Saint Jean de Malte. The climax is possibly the best bit of all: free calissons are distributed to the public amid more music.

The festival as it exists today is a relatively recent institution but has become a popular early autumn tourist attraction. Website for the Blessing of the Calissons.

In Aix the calisson is also an indispensable part of the 13 Desserts customarily served in Provence after Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve.

Today it would be very hard indeed to visit Aix without coming across the noble calissson, in a glistening cellophane bag, in a sleek white box that echoes its shape, or in a baroque white and gold sunburst in a confectioner's window. And it would be nigh-impossible to leave town without having one of these little taste explosions melting on your tongue.

Click here to read about the Léonard Parli calisson factory tour

Buy Calissons d'Aix online hereimage!

 

 

2. Navettes and espérantines from Marseille The traditional sweetmeat of Marseille is the navette, though it's really a biscuit, or cookie. These are long thin biscuits flavoured with orange water and intended to resemble the boat, or navette, that brought Lazarus, Mary Magdalene and other saints to Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in Provence.

Navettes are traditionally eaten at Candlemas (Chandeleur) on 2 February after traditional religious processions, the most celebrated of which is held at Saint Victor Abbey in Marseille. In practice, you can buy them all the year round.

Esperantines de MarseilleThe espérantine, pictured, is by contrast a real newcomer: it was created for Marseille's 2600th anniversary in 1999. It is a chocolate, though it does not look like one - it is shaped like an olive leaf and coloured a vivid green - or taste like a conventional one either.

The filling consists of a paste of almonds, preserved orange peel and mint and the green chocolate shell is based on 72% cocoa solids, with the fat supplied by extra-virgin olive oil instead of milk. The espérantine was awarded the Cordon Bleu for Best Sweet in France (Meilleure Confiserie de France) at the international confectionery fair INTERSUC in Paris in 2000.

3. Berlingots from Carpentras The adjective "candy-coloured" might have been invented for the berlingot, a bright boiled sweet rather like a humbug, that comes in rainbow shades of green, red, brown or blue.

It has two vital hallmarks: the white sugar-stripes running through it and its angular, tetrahedral shape. As it melts in your mouth, its flavours are released: peppermint, aniseed, lemon or strawberry.

The berlingot, pictured below, was first invented - according to myth - in the early 14th century under the papacy of Clement V, the first of the Avignon popes, in order to celebrate the dissolution of the Knights Templar. According to legend, berlingots are named after the Pope's birth name, Bertrand de Got.

It was first sold in apothecaries for medicinal purposes. Not until 1844 did a confectioner named François Pascal Long make the berlingot more palatable by adding prodigious amounts of fruit syrup, and succeed in selling it as a sweetmeat.

Berlingots de CarpentrasShortly afterwards Gustave Eysséric found a way of industrialising the process and soon the berlingot was sold all over the world.

Confiseurs manufacture it today in Carpentras. But it remains a popular tourist souvenir, especially when packaged in the trademark berlingot tin.

One manufacturer, Serge Clavel, specialises in extraordinary candy sculptures and has developed intriguing variants, such as a tricolour version for the Elysée Palace.

4. Nougat from Southern Provence Montelimar nougat is the famous one that everyone knows, but the nougat to be found further south is - at least the manufactuers claim - very different.

It's softer and indeed should ideally be wrapped in opaque paper, as sunlight can make it go runny. According to some traditions, the name comes from "tu nous gâtes" ("you're spoiling us").

White nougat is made with honey, sugar, blanched almonds, pistachios and egg white, and is cooked very, very slowly in a bain marie. The chewier black nougat has unskinned almonds, brown sugar and no egg white, and is briskly caramelised over an open flame.

These two nougats are the only sweets to be indispensable ingredients of the 13 Desserts, a cornerstone of Christmas celebrations in provençal households.

They stand for the white penitents and black penitents, according to some accounts. In others, the soft white nougat represents purity and goodness, while the harder, brittle black nougat symbolises impurity and forces of evil.

Papalines from Avignon5. Papalines from Avignon Piqued at not having a speciality of their very own, the city's chocolatiers came up with this decidedly odd-looking creation in 1960, baptised in honour of the Avignon popes.

The papaline is a chocolate liqueur, the liqueur being "l'Origan du Comtat", a beverage dating back to 1835 which is produced by macerating alcohol in honey and 60 different kinds of herbs.

Around it are two coats of chocolate, the outer layer being painstakingly applied by hand using a special brush, in order to produce the textured effect. The result (pictured left) resembles a neon-pink thistle but fortunately tastes rather nicer.

6. Melonettes and cigales from Cavaillon Cavaillon likes to think of itself as the melon capital of the world and its local produce, including jams and liqueurs, is all inspired by the round, sweet cucurbit.

Melonettes are sweets made of a ganache of dark chocolate infused with melon; cigales are nothing to do with the noisy cicada, but are petits fours made of preserved melon marinated in anise and coated in honey and grilled almonds.

Candied fruit from Apt7. Candied fruit from Apt Back in the Middle Ages, this was a practical method of preserving the region's over-abundant fruit harvests. Today the fruit is a delicacy of international renown.

Cherries, apricots, melons, strawberries, peaches and now also tropical fruits are all candied in the same way. The fruits are blanched in boiling water, then plunged a dozen or so times in boiling syrup of increasing strength over a period of a month or even longer. The end result is a glossy, intensely coloured fruit engorged with sweetness (pictured).

At first honey was used, then sugar, which was introduced to Provence during the Crusades. An unlikely pioneer of the process was Nostradamus.

Born in Saint Rémy de Provence, the physician and prophet preserved fruits for Catherine de Medicis and wrote a book on "cosmetics and conserves" in 1552 with some rather good recipes for jams and jellies.

Just as curiously, the market leader in Apt today is an Irish company, Kerry Aptunion, which has a factory - the world's largest - 2.5 km / 1.5 miles north-west of the town. Free guided factory tours are possible by reservation. Tel (+33) 4 90 76 31 31.

8. Suce miel, chiques and casse-dents from Allauch In Allauch, an attractive hillside town a short metro and bus ride from Marseille, the confectioners at the historic Moulin Bleu have patented three unique specialities.

A boiled sweet delivers a triple-threat sugar rush of glucose, lavender honey and sugar, either in the form of a long stick, the suce miel, or a small round sweet, the chique.

Casse-dents (teeth-breakers) are small, very crunchy almond biscuits not unlike Italian biscotti. If visiting the shop, you'll find a cosy tea-room at the back to sample all of these and more.

9. La Chocolaterie de Puyricard Despite the espérantine, chocolate isn't really a provençal delicacy. But one Belgian family braved the odds. Click here to read the remarkable story of the Puyricard chocolate factory just outside Aix en Provence,

Papa Haribo poster10. The Sweet Museum (Le Musée du Bonbon) in Uzès, some 40 km / 29 miles north-west of Avignon is, strictly speaking, in the Languedoc rather than in Provence.

And it's equally uncertain whether the kaleidoscopic jelly babies, liquorice sticks and gobstoppers on display there are gastronomic triumphs. Founded by the German confectionery company Haribo in 1996, it's essentially a giant advertisement for its wares.

But children may enjoy the interactive displays, not to mention the free samples, though the museum has attracted mixed reviews and the queues can be interminable in the middle of summer.

Where: Pont des Charrettes, 30700 Uzès; tel (+33) 4 66 22 74 39. Closed Mondays and for the first three weeks of January. Website for the Musée du Bonbonin Uzès

There's also a Haribo shop on the edge of Marseille. 6 boulevard Gay Lussac, 13014 Marseille. Tel: (+33) 4 91 37 55 03.

 

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