CALISSONS, CROQUETTES, BEAUMES DE VENISE, AND TEA FROM PALAIS DES THÉS: THESE ARE A FEW OF MY FAVORITE THINGS IN PROVENCE AT CHRISTMAS
“Calissons” is the first of a three-part series that focuses on what you may find in Provence after the “big supper” (otherwise known as the “Gros Souper”) on Christmas Eve, Called “the thirteen desserts of Christmas” or “Les Treize Desserts de Noël,” tradition dictates that the desserts consist of dried fruit and nuts, fresh fruit, and sweets totaling 13 desserts to represent Jesus Christ and his 12 apostles at the Last Supper. The desserts are set out after Midnight Mass, all at once, on three layers of white table cloths (that represent the Holy Trinity). People who live in Provence know that everyone should take a piece of each dessert. (I don’t know what happens if you don’t, but I don’t want to tempt fate.)
Although the specific desserts may vary by regional or family tradition, it seems that every table is graced by the “four beggars” or “les quatre mendicants,” which stand for the four monastic orders. Look for walnuts (or hazelnuts) representing the Augustinians, almonds for the Carmelites, raisins for the Dominicans, and dried figs for the Franciscans. Dates, standing for the foods from Christ’s homeland, and prunes may also be found under this category of dried fruits and nuts.
The fresh fruit platter is likely to consist of tangerines, oranges, apples, pears, and grapes. The tangerines, probably from neighboring Spain, are particularly sweet this time of year and have always been a part of the Les Treize Desserts de Noël that I have seen.
The sweets always include white and black nougat: nougat blanc and nougat noir au miel. Said to symbolize good and evil—or, alternatively, to represent the shift from long bright days to long dark days as marked by the winter solstice—the classic nougat hails from Montelimar (where it is AOC protected). The table probably also includes fougasse or pompe à huile (a sweet cake made with olive oil and perhaps orange flower water). In some locales, this may be served with a jam made from the grapes harvested from local vineyards. It’s widely understood that the bread should be torn apart (rather than cut) in order to protect one’s assets. Candied citron, quince paste (pâte de coing), and spice cake (pain d’epice) may be parts of this impressive spread and, nowadays, a bûche de Noël may also be found on the table. Finally, if you are lucky, as the title of this article suggests, calissons and croquants may be part of the thirteen desserts, too.
A sweet wine such as Muscat de Beaumes de Venise is a ideal accompaniment followed by a steaming pot of Palais de Thé tea .
This three-part series begins with calissons. Next week, I will write about croquettes and Beaumes de Venise, and, finally, in my third piece, I will focus on my favorite teas in the world…from Palais des Thés.
This luscious 3-inch long, almond-shaped pastry of ground almonds, candied melons, and sugar on top of a thin layer of rice paper and topped with bright white royal icing is as closely related to Aix-en-Provence as is the city’s venerable cours Mirabeau. There were once more calissonnieres than fountains on this famous plane tree-lined boulevard. My favorite, still there today, is Maison Bechard, a confiserie and patisserie that is impossible to walk past without drooling. Their cakes are works of art as well as exceptionally good and their calissons set a standard that I wasn’t sure could be reached by another calissonniere.
I was reluctant to try Aix’s famous calisson when we first arrived in Provence. Photos suggested they would be dry and chewy, the icing looked stale, and I was afraid they’d taste like a fruit cake. When we got to Maison Bechard, I realized I couldn’t have been more wrong. The glistening white icing looked luscious and the pastry upon which the icing set looked soft but not at all chewy—visions of pastry akin to fruitcakes vanished from my head. The pastry does have a consistency similar to marzipan but that is as far as that likeness goes—the calisson pastry is bursting with flavors of candied melon and orange peel as well as almonds. It was love at first bite.
We were all smiling….like Jeanne de Laval, the bride of Roi René on their wedding day back in 1473. Legend has it that Reine Jeanne, a young woman in her 20s, was not happy becoming the second wife of the 45 year-old-ish King, an arrangement made by her father. The king’s chef, knowing that his king’s new wife was fond of sweets, is said to have created the calisson to make her smile. He was successful with the young queen and with generations of calisson lovers since then.
There are other stories about the origins of this celebrated sweet. Some say that it dates back to the 13th century as a variation of the Italian pastry, calisone, or the Greek pastry, kalitsounia (which probably evolved from the Venetian calisone).
Still others say that it was not until the 16th century that the calisson, as we know it today was created and that the impetus was the growing number of almond trees in Provence. (I didn’t know that by the end of the 19th century, Provence was the world’s largest producer of almonds although, today it can no longer claim this fame.)
Finally, it is generally agreed that their popularity—and perhaps their name—really began at the end of the Great Plague of 1629 – 1630. During this time, it was believed that eating a calisson a day would keep the plague away, a belief that may have been reinforced (or started) by priests who would offer these pastries from their chalices, saying “venite ad calicem” (“come to the chalice”) which gradually became something like “come to the calissons!”
The Aix calisson is such a perfect creation—said to be the original calisson and the only true calisson—that, in 2002, the calisson d’Aix was awarded its own appellation d’origine contrôlée (AOC) status, which means that calissons with this indication must meet certain requirements regarding the locale of production as well as the origin and quality of the ingredients. (If memory serves me correctly, only 1% of the ingredients may veer from AOC specifications, thus allowing each calissonnier to have his or her own, closely-guarded secret ingredients, e.g., candied orange peel, honey, vanilla extract, etc.) About ten years earlier, the calissonniers of Aix banded together to form the Union des Fabricants de Callissons d’Aix (UFCA). The goal of both organizing the UFCA and achieving the status of AOC is to guarantee the quality of the product for us consumers and to ensure that we don’t unwittingly purchase an inferior calisson.
With a motto like, “From Aix-en-Provence and nowhere else,” you can imagine the trepidation I experienced when the only calissons I could find from Boston to Portland, Maine were not from Aix-en-Provence.
Initially, I couldn’t find calissons (from anywhere!) without mail-ordering them, a perfectly fine way of procuring them but I had just rearranged the order of my posts and did not have the time to wait for their arrival. I considered making them but those plans went awry when I could not find a local source for candied melon. I was willing to make the candied orange peel but the candied melon called for culinary skills I might not possess and time that I definitely didn’t have. Just as I was about to abandon calissons as a subject for this week’s post, serendipity emerged to save the post’s topic. I was in Boston, talking with my hair dresser about picking up some chocolates from nearby L. A. Burdick, one of my favorite chocolate shops, before returning to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and, because it was raining, Paul suggested I go to a tiny shop tucked in a corner of the Westin Copley Hotel Mall. They have an interesting selection of hard-to-find products from abroad, he said, including his favorite chocolates from Germany, where he grew up. Paul was thinking that I wouldn’t get as wet as I would walking to Burdick’s and I was thinking, hmmm….maybe they have calissons!
I found Gourmet Boutique—a shop about the size of my laundry room or, for those of you with walk-in closets, it’s about that big—and it is bulging at the seams with interesting gourmet products from around the world. From caviar and foie gras to chocolates, including—yes!—calissons!
The only box of calissons I could put my hands on in time to write this post read, “Calissons de Provence” and that they were made by an Artisan Confiseur, Arnaud Soubeyran, whose business dates back to 1837. But they were made in Montélimar , in the Drôme department of the Rhône-Alpes region, some 155 kilometers (90 miles) from the appellation of the truecalisson, the calisson d’Aix. Knowing that Montélimar is renowned for its nougat and is referred to as the “capital of nougat” as well as “the gateway to Provence” did not squelch my worries about these calissons.
Much to my relief, they were very good. Of course, they are no comparison to the freshly baked calissons from Maison Bechard but they are a welcome understudy. If they have not completely disappeared by Christmas Eve, they will be part of our 13 desserts.
Although an essential part of the 13 desserts in Provence, calissons are enjoyed all year round. I certainly eat them whenever I am in Provence! Some folks would go so far as to say it is impossible to leave Aix without tucking at least one calisson in your bag.
In September, on the first Sunday, the Fête des Calissons takes place in Aix. There are folk dancing performances and a procession through the narrow streets of the city’s Old Town, culminating with the “Blessing of the Calissons” at the Church of Saint Jean de Malte and the distribution of calissons at the nearby place des Quatre Dauphins.
Although as much as 75% of France’s calisson production comes from Aix, I discovered that some pretty good ones hail from Montélimar, too. And, just outside of Aix, at the well-known Puyricard chocolate factory, you can find some excellent chocolate-covered calissons (as well as some divine chocolates). As Paris has its macaron, Aix has its calisson….but excellent macarons and calissons can be found in other places, too.
Calissons are not inexpensive but when I investigated how to make them, I understood why!
Where I bought my calissons—made in Montélimar by Arnaud Soubeyran—may be ordered by telephone (because they are not yet on their website). They are 19.99 plus $7.95 shipping for 4.94 oz, or 12 small calissons. (The small size is a good choice as part of the 13 desserts.) The traditional (3 inch) size calissons are available by the piece, individually wrapped.
And, then there is Amazon, where I would recommend choosing the Roy René calissons. (and compare prices on this site as they vary widely!) The diamond shaped tin is traditional but the box is less expensive. The Calissons made by Arnaud Soubeyran are outrageously expensive—if you want these calissons, order them by phone from Gourmet Boutique!