Berlingots are one of the oldest traditional hard sweets in France, recognisable by their shape which resembles a pyramid with rounded edges. They were first made in two areas of France: Carpentras in Vaucluse and Nantes in Loire-Atlantique.
Berlingots Carpentras are translucent with white stripes and date back to the early 1800s while the Berlingots Nantais are opaque, covered in a dusting of sugar and were first made at the end of the 19th century.
In the 1950s, Berlingots Carpentras were one of the most popular sweets eaten all over France, with a production of over 2,000 tonnes a year, with some of the bigger factories making a tonne a day. The oldest artisanal sweet maker is Confiserie du Mont Ventoux, with three full-time sweet makers. Thierry Vial has kept on the tradition started by his grandparents in 1946 and continued by his parents, while other manufacturers closed down, one after the other:
“I was brought up working with sugar and I love it. It is a material which has great artistic possibilities, because you can transform it into so many different forms, just like glass. I just wish I had more time to experiment.”
He says the origins of the sweet can be traced back to the 14th century when Pope Clement V was at Avignon: “There is a legend that in 1313, the Pope’s sweet maker tipped the remains of a syrup mixture out onto the table which Clement V took and cut into the tetrahedral shape we know today.
“This kind of hard sweet could be made from the time a syrup could be formed with either honey or sugar. However, it was not until the early 19th century that production really began.
“It started here because we live in an area rich in fruits which were already being conserved as candied fruits. Cherries were the main fruit and to avoid wasting the red syrup left over from the candying process, it was used to make hard sweets. The first ones were therefore red, flavoured with locally grown mint and decorated from the very start with white stripes. They were first sold in apothecaries for the health virtues of mint, which could help digestion and bad breath.”
As machines began to be introduced into the process, production increased. By the 1930s the popular bonbon was enjoyed nationwide, and it became even more famous when director Fernand Rivers made a film, Berlingot et Compagnie, in 1939. It is the tale of two fairground sellers who sell the distinctive sweet, have a series of adventures but eventually win their fortune and are able to set up a shop of their own. It was a wonderful marketing opportunity for the sweet from Provence.
“The boom time for Berlingots came to an end with the introduction of jellied sweets,” says Mr Vial. “From then on, intense competition led to the closure of the factories. Our family business continued, and though it will never be as popular as it was in the past, there is renewed interest in the sweet as a product which is artisanal and only uses authentic ingredients – all our flavours are natural. We are always happy to demonstrate how we make them and tell their history.”
There are very few ingredients: sugar, glucose syrup, water and flavourings. The first three are heated up in 13 kilo batches to a temperature of 160°F.
“I pour the heated sugar paste onto a cold table, and separate out one small ball,” says Mr Vial. “I work the colours and flavours into the main part of the paste which remains translucent. I take the small ball, hang it from a hook and pull and work at it repeatedly until it crystalizes and becomes opaque and white and this is used to make the stripes. These are laid onto the paste, which then has to be stretched.
“This is done partially by hand, but I also have a machine I put it through to help, and then it goes through another machine which cuts it into the traditional shape. Two of us are needed to work together at this stage.”
He says it is most likely the shape was chosen because when they were first made, the form could easily be cut by scissors and was more interesting than a cube or a rectangular. There was often a bit of showmanship involved, when the sweets would be made in front of an admiring public at the fairground.
Thierry Vial sells his sweets in around fifteen different flavours including lavender, melon, strawberry, coffee, lemon, orange and honey. “In season a local grower brings saffron and I have a friend who grows basil which, we use. There are so many possibilities.”
Berlingots Nantais have a slightly different history. It is said the first ones were sold in 1780 in a sweet shop called A la Renommée des Vrais Berlingots Nantais. The story goes that the mother of the shopkeeper’s wife gave a poor beggar woman money, who was so grateful she passed on her recipe for the sweet.
By the end of the 19th century a successful sweet industry had grown up in Nantes because of its port and the boats bringing in sugar cane from the West Indies. The Berlingots Nantais were one of its most popular bonbons. There were several sweet makers, but as in Carpentras the industry declined with competition from new softer bonbons, such as chewing gum.
The most well-known were Bonté and Pinson, which merged in 2006 and still make Berlingots. Clara Herlin is their Marketing Director: “Our sweets are made in the same way as the sweet from Carpentras, but the sugar paste is worked until it becomes opaque and ours do not have stripes but are coated in sugar.
They are particularly popular at Christmas and with tourists in the summer. There are seven flavours; orange, lemon, blackcurrant, strawberry, aniseed, caramel and mint. They are still made using traditional techniques, and much of this is done by hand.”
The sugar no longer comes from overseas but is from French sugar beet and they use only natural flavourings.
Both the Confiserie du Mont Ventoux and La Confiserie Pinson have the Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant label which marks them out as companies keeping traditional skills alive.
There is some debate over the origins of the name. Some say it comes from the name of an Italian sweet treat, the berlingozzo and others say it could be a play on words from the name of Pope Clement V, whose actual name was Raymond Bertrand de Got. The name is now also used to describe a form of packaging in the shape of the sweet.