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The history behind Provence's classic sweet treat: calissons

Calissons are very popular sweet treats from Provence. Connexion speaks to a notable producer of these oval-shaped, almond-based beauties.

Calissons are the typical sweet treat from Provence, steeped in legend and tradition and still as popular today as they have been since their invention in the fifteenth century. The main producer in Aix-en-Provence, Le Roy René, is celebrating its hundredth anniversary this year and is behind an initiative to increase the number of almond trees in the region so that eventually this major ingredient in a calisson will be 100% local, just as it used to be.

What is a calisson?

A calisson is made in a characteristic long oval shape and has three layers. The base is a thin layer of wafer, the filling is made of a mixture of finely ground sweet almonds and candied fruit and topped with royal icing. The fruit used by Le Roy René is melon and orange peel from Provence.

The Managing Director of Roy René is Laure Pierrisnard, who says the calisson has an important place in local culture: “The story goes that calissons were created for the marriage of René, King of Provence to Jeanne de Laval in 1454. She was beautiful but never smiled, until she tasted this new confectionary at the end of the wedding feast. Her whole face lit up and she asked for the name of this delight. The reply was Di calin soun, Provencal for “these are little cuddles”. And so the name was born and the shape is a reminder of the Queen’s smile.”

There is another legend too: “In 1630, Aix-en-Provence was ravaged by plague and there were very few inhabitants left in the town. One of the only nobles who had stayed and not fled, Assessor Martelly, held a service asking for protection from the Virgin of the Seds, patron saint of the City of Aix. Calissons were served at the service and from then on there were no new cases of the disease. Since then calissons are blessed every first Sunday in September at an annual thanksgiving service.”

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A classic childhood treat

Laure Pierrisnard remembers them from early on in her childhood: “In Provence they make up one of the thirteen deserts traditionally eaten at the end of the Christmas meal on December 24. So they always bring back childhood memories of good times. They are eaten in the same way as macaroons, but are not as well known, and can accompany a cup of coffee or tea. I also like to think of them as the south’s equivalent of Proust’s madeleine. I am hoping that more people will get to know them as they are a real delicacy and one of France’s products of excellence.”

The Calissons d’Aix-en-Provence have recently won the right to carry the IGP label (Protected Geographical Indication), after a Chinese company began selling its own version of Calissons d’Aix. The IGP covers seven communes around Aix-en-Provence and the small cakes must contain almonds and crystallised fruit, notably melon. Le Roy René produces 50 million calissons a year. It is the market leader in traditional Aix-en-Provence calissons, accounting for two thirds of production in the area. They are sold all over France with boutiques in major cities and they are beginning to export to Canada, the USA and the UK, though this makes up just 5% of sales at present.

What makes the perfect calisson?

Le Roy René was created in 1920 to make both calissons and nougat. The company has always used the same recipe for its traditional calissons but also makes variations with different flavours including ginger, lime, blackcurrant and hazelnut. Le Roy René has an Entreprise du Patrimoine Vivant label, which rewards French firms for the excellence of their traditional savoir faire.

Laure Pierrisnard says making them is a skill passed down through the generations and the people who make them even have their own name, calissonières. “Nearly all of the processes are still carried out manually and need a very fine attention to detail and a steady hand. For example, the calissonières apply the white glacé icing by hand. The end result must be smooth and shiny without the slightest bubble or other imperfection."

“They have to know their ingredients and how to adapt to different conditions, for example humidity can alter the state of the fruit. A good calisson will have a contrast between a soft centre and a crisp icing. We have around 10 people making them and another 20 packing and this too has to be done carefully as they are very fragile.” 

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Sweets steeped in tradition

The traditional recipe uses melon and almonds for its main ingredients. The melon comes solely from Provence, mostly from Cavaillon and is candied at Apt, Vaucluse which has been the world capital of crystallised fruit since the 14th century.

All the almonds used to come from Provence, but in 1956 there was an extreme winter with frosts which killed off many of the almond trees and thousands were never replaced, as they were seen as less profitable than cherries and vines for wine. Le Roy René alone uses 200 tonnes of almonds a year, but up until very recently there were just 300 tonnes grown in Provence, and most of the nuts were sold to be eaten whole.

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“California grows the most worldwide but we have never bought from there as the Mediterranean ones are better quality, as they are richer in oils, and so we have to import most of ours from Spain. One day we hope to be able to buy enough locally. In 2015 an initiative was launched to help producers introduce almond trees on to their land. They are advised by a technician from the Chambre d’Agriculture and new varieties which flower later and are less at risk from the frost have been developed."

“Trees take four years before they produce any fruit so we are only just beginning to see the results. This year, for the first time we have been able to triple the amount of local almonds we use. They are more expensive, but customers are prepared to pay more for a local product which they know is grown in good conditions with minimal use of chemicals and on farms which are not monoculture, but have varied crops.”

In 2019, 550 tonnes were produced and the aim is 1,700 tonnes in 2023. There is a museum dedicated to the calisson ten minutes from Aix-en-Provence town centre at Le Roy René. It is open all week and visits are free. For €6 you can have a guided visit plus a calisson making demonstration with tastings. In the gardens you can walk amongst 19 varieties of French almond trees.

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