Calisson d’Aix the Sweet Almond Candy of Provence
Candy might not be the reason you decide to visit Aix-en-Provence, but don’t leave town without sampling the famous Calisson d’Aix. These sweets, made with ground, local almonds (sweet and bitter) and a fruit paste blend of melon confit (preserved in sugar) and orange peel, were officially recognised as part of the heritage of the city in 1990. Traditional calisson have three layers; thin host paper on the bottom, the fruit-almond mixture and a light coating of royal icing on top. Typically, a soft-diamond shape calisson are similar in taste to marzipan although not as sweet, in my opinion.
In the words of French novelist and filmmaker Marcel Pagnol,
“le calisson d’Aix est un mélange de quatre tiers: un tiers d’amandes, un tiers de fruits confits, un tiers de sucre et surtout un tiers de savoir-faire et d’amour du travail bien fait.”
”The Calisson d’Aix is a mixture of four thirds; one-third almonds, one-third fruit confit, one-third sugar, and mostly a third savoir-faire and the love of work well done.”
Origins, Legends and Benedictions
There are so many obvious Italian influences in the South of France (architecture, cuisine, language, religious symbols) that it is entirely believable that the calisson recipe, or a version of it, originated from Italy. A Medieval Latin text, from the 12th century, used the word calisone in reference to a cake made with almonds and flour. According to the World Public Library, “Among the first known references to calissons was in Martino di Canale’s Chronicle of the Venetians in 1275.”
What came first the Queen or the Plague?
Visit the statue at the end of the Cours Mirabeau in Aix-en-Provence honouring the man who was known as Good King René. Roi René of Anjou’s family lineage stretched from Sicily and Naples (his father Duke Louis II held the title of King of Sicily) to modern-day Spain (his mother Yolanda of Aragon). Jeanne de Laval was 21-years old when they married Abbey of St. Nicholas in Angers, in September 1454. Legend has it that calisson were served at their wedding and the new queen (his second wife) smiled.
The problem with that story is the almond crop in Provence was established later in the 16th century. Although, it is possible that the almonds were imported as there was much trade with merchants from Italy.
Provence was ravaged by the plague several times starting in 1348, with the worst and most deadly episode occurring in 1629. To this day, in the old town of Aix-en-Provence, there are visible niches at the corner of some streets. Before the Revolution, these were spots for small statues of the Virgin Mary. One strategy to reduce the spread of the plague was to isolate the sick, to restrict movement and human interaction as much as possible. These little statues allowed the residents of Aix to pray from their homes. Visit Aix-en-Provence on a Le Visible est Invisible walking tour to understand more about Provence during this era.
“Calissons are served three times a year – on Sept. 1, Christmas and Easter – at Notre Dame de la Seds to commemorate the end of the great plague of 1630. With its bottom layer of rice or azym, paper, the calisson replaces the host and is believed to guard against sudden death and contagion. The priest offers the sweetmeats from his chalice, repeating three times ”venite ad calicem” (come to the chalice). The congregation replies, thrice, with the Provencal ”venes toui i calissoun” (we are coming).” Excerpt, from “Provence’s Almond Calissons” (NY Times Travel ).
On the first Sunday in September, there is an annual mass celebrated at the church of St Jean de Malte to bless the calisson. The tradition began in 1630 and continued until the French Revolution. The practice was revived in 1995. The pageantry includes a parade through the ancient streets of Aix with participants wearing traditional dresses. The show is followed by a church service to celebrate the end of the plague and the blessing of this sweet candy. You can find all the details on the annual Bénédiction des Calissons d’Aix-en-Provence here.
What is Inside?
Regardless of the exact origin, the recipe for Calisson d’Aix is controlled today by only a handful of manufacturers (Calissonniers). The following is an excerpt from Anne-Marie Simmon’s book Taking Root in Provence:
“The Calisson d’Aix is made following a traditional recipe: almonds are ground into flour and then combined with candied local melon and sugar. The paste is shaped and spread on a paper-thin wafer, covered in whipped egg whites and sugar and baked at exactly 130°C for exactly 15 minutes. The seven confectioners operating in Aix who bake calisson must use identical ingredients for 99% of the recipe. The 1% personalized ingredient is what will make each “confiserie” slightly different from their competitors. Calisson Roy René adds 1% orange rind. Another manufacturer adds vanilla.”
Today, you can find many calisson variations for sale with different flavours and coloured icings. However, the original “Calisson d’Aix” — first created in the 17th century — are produced following strict guidelines. These include:
Location: For the manufacturer to display the official name, they must be located within the Indication géographique protégée (IGP) in one of these seven (7) communes: Aix-en-Provence, Eguilles, Meyreuil, St Marc Jaumegarde, Le Tholonet, Venelles or Vauvenargues.
Ingredients: According to Le Roy René’s website, “The calisson Aix must be manufactured from a crushed candied fruit and almonds blanched complemented by sugar syrup. The blanched almonds (minimum 32% of the pulp) carefully mixed candied fruit are crushed. Candied fruits account for 30% minimum of the dough. Melon, fruit mainly used (80% of candied fruit) is cultivated exclusively in Provence.”
Size and shape: The Calisson d’Aix is oblong and pointed at both ends. The calisson must have three distinct layers, a slightly granular texture, and no unnatural colouring or preservatives.
Who are the Confectioners?
These are the calissoniers who are members of the l’Union des Fabricants du Calisson d’Aix (UFCA) and adhere to the standards of production.
Pâtisserie – Confiserie Béchard
12 cours Mirabeau
Aix-en-Provence, France 13100
Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 26 06 78
Confiserie Léonard Parli (since 1874)
35 avenue Victor Hugo
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 26 05 71
95 rue Famille Laurens
Pôle d’Activité des Milles – Sortie n°3
13290 Aix en Provence
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 52 19 20
Confiserie du Roy René (since 1920)
There are several boutiques in France
11 Rue Gaston de Saporta,
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 26 67 86
Factory and Museum
5380 Route d’Avignon,
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 39 29 90
Confiserie Bremond (since 1830)
16 Ter Rue d’Italie
Tel: +33 (0)4 92 72 66 91
Chocolaterie Puyricard (since 1960)
Avenue Georges de Fabry
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 28 18 18
You can visit the factory or participate in a workshop
You can find them in the market in Aix (Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday)
9, avenue du Dr Bertrand
Tel:+ 33 (0)4 42 63 11 51
1 Rue Gaston de Saporta
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 23 30 64
Pâtisserie Weibel (since 1954)
2 rue Chabrier
Tel: +33 (0) 4 42 23 33 21
Confiserie Nouvelle (Hospital)
Petite Calade montée Avignon
2620 chemin Maliverny
Confiserie Fruidoraix (since 1880)
295 Rue Agate,
Tel: +33 (0)4 42 52 51 80
Confiserie d’Entrecasteaux (since 1889)
40, Impasse Emeri, Pole d’Activite les Jalassières,
NOTE: Many of these companies ship internationally.
Sweet calisson dreams!