The hinterland of the Provence, until the 1960s an impoverished backwater of France, has maintained many old traditions in gastronomy. Case in point: Berlingots, Calissons, Candied Fruits and Nougat. All four go back to the Middle Ages, perhaps earlier. They are still produced today as in the old times. Let's explain what they are and where you can buy them from artisan shops in the region we cover, the area between Aix en Provence, Arles and up north to Vaison la Romaine.
A Berlingot is a colorful fruit candy. It can be green, red, blue either transparent or opaque, with white stripes running through it. It is very hard on the outside, but as it slowly melts in your mouth you taste the center, a subtle flavor of peppermint, aniseed, lemon or strawberry. It is in the historic town of Carpentras where the berlingots originated. If you happen to be in town do visit Clavel's Berlingot Shop (30, rue Porte d'Orange), this store has stood still in time and its present owner is a riot.
Origin of the Berlingot is uncertain. One of the legends has it that a Carpentras confectioner to Pope Clement V (1305-1314, born Bertand de Goth), created a treat to celebrate the dissolution of the Knights of Templars. He then offered these to the Pope with the words "Honor to Bertrand de Goth", hence the name "Berlingots". They have an old fashioned charm and were very popular in France in the 1950's and 60's. Then the dentists put a stop to it or rather people being more health conscious. They are still produced to this day in small quantities; an old tradition being kept alive. Frankly, they are not everyone's taste, but the tins are very collectible.
This is a specialty of Aix en Provence, made from ground almond paste (pâte d'amande), sugar and candied cantaloupes, with a paper thin wafer (like the catholic host) at the bottom, and a topping of sugar glaze.
The legend goes that Calissons were invented by the chef of René I d'Anjou, King of Naples and Count of the Provence. He was the last Prince of the House of Anjou, known as an artist, a lover of culture and a great builder; the last ruler of an independent Provence. You can view his statue on Cours Mirabeau in Aix en Provence. In 1454, a year after his wife Queen Isabelle had died, King René married again. It is said that his bride, beautiful 22 year old Jeanne de Laval, daughter of Isabelle of Brittany and Guy de Laval, was not too happy about marrying a 45 year old man. The Calissons were meant to cheer her up. Reportedly the marriage, albeit childless, turned out to be a very happy one, it lasted 26 years. After King René's death in Aix en Provence in 1480, the Provence became part of the Kingdom of France. Jeanne de Laval was given the Comté de Beaufort in the Champagne, which she ruled benevolently for another 18 years.
There are many other legends involving the popular Calissons. Let's just stick with the romantic Jeanne de Laval story. Calissons must have made her happy. When you bite into a Calisson, you expect it to be a small, dry, sugar glazed biscuit. You will be surprised! Below the white sugar glaze is a soft, delicious almond paste and the sweet and aromatic flavor of candied cantaloupes. In addition there a traces of honey and other candied fruits (oranges, apricots). How much of each and what type of candied fruit exactly is the secret of the "Calissonier". The preparation of Calissons is an elaborate process. The candied fruits are mixed and pounded with ground almonds into a smooth paste, which will be cooked very gently for 90 minutes. A work surface is covered with rice paper. A mold with almond shaped cutouts is laid on top and the almond - candied fruits paste is poured in. Each Calisson should weigh around 10-14g (roughly 1/2 ounce). The Calissons are coated with sugar glaze and go into an oven to dry. Once cooled they are packaged into small boxes and shipped. Calissons are one of the 13 traditional deserts of a Provençal Christmas.
Here are our favorite "Calisson" Confiseries:
Confiserie d'Entrecasteaux 2 Rue d'Entrecasteaux, 13100 Aix en Provence, Tel: 04 42 27 15 02
Confiserie Bechard 12 cours Mirabeau, 13100 Aix en Provence, Tel: 04 42 26 06 78
Confiserie du Roy René 10, Rue Clémenceau, 13100 Aix en Provence, Tel: 04 42 26 67 86
An ancient method to preserve fruit is to candy them. This process has been in use at least since the 14th century. The Popes in Avignon, especially Benedict XIII liked it very much. Candied fruits from the Provence, at those times already France's orchard, became a delicacy at the courts all over Europe. Early on they were exported to Britain, where they are used to this day for fruit cake recipes.
Candied fruits are made from fresh fruits. They need to be ripe, the right size and absolutely immaculate. They are then picked by hand in order to avoid any damage. Further preparation depends on the type of fruit. All citrus fruits are kept in their skins, which are being punctured so that the sugar syrup can penetrate inside. Pears are peeled, cleaned inside but left whole. Cantaloupes are peeled, cleaned and cut into pieces. Talking about cantaloupes: "Le melon de Cavaillon" is one of the best in France, small, firm, orange color inside, very juicy and pleasantly sweet. Cavaillon is the undisputed center of fruit production in France. Scores of trucks leave each night from here to deliver fresh produce to Rungis near Paris, the largest wholesale market in Europe for fresh produce. The method to candy fruits has two main stages. First the fruit is blanched, i.e. briefly immersed into boiling water. How long? Depends on the fruit and this is where the artisan's experience comes in. Then the fruit is placed in a light solution of sugar syrup, which is subsequently heated. After cooling off, the fruit is reheated again next day. This process is repeated for a couple of days, depending on the type of fruit. With each reheating the concentration of sugar syrup is increased and the fruit absorbs more and more of it. The result is a shiny fruit, soft and full of aroma inside.
You can buy candied fruits in your favorite Pâtisserie and Confiserie in the Provence. The two Nougatiers we recommend under the Nougat section below, André Boyer in Sault and Silvain Frères in St.Didier, have a wonderful selection of candied fruits. They are nicely prepared and packaged, a great gift idea.
Aptunion, Apt: Reportedly this is the largest candied fruit maker in the world, belonging to the Kerry Group from Tralee in County Kerry, Ireland. They sell standard type candied fruits, no bells and whistles; prices are unbeatable. You can buy at their company store right next to the modern factory; that is if you can stand the heat inside the store. In other words, if you plan to visit Apt, drop buy, otherwise it is not worth the trip unless you are a candied fruit aficionado. Located right outside Apt on Rt.N 100 (direction to Cavaillon). Quartier Salignan, Apt, Tel: 04 90 76 31 31.
You can buy excellent jams, marmalades and confitures on the local Provençal markets. Most are made in small artisan shops or by fruit growers and only available locally. Here is a company which sells genuine confitures of the Provence on a larger scale:
Les Comtes de Provence in Peyruis, in the fruit growing region on the Durance river, 32km south of Sisteron. Their products are available online or in many stores across France.
Nougat is a harmonious blend of honey, egg white and sugar, flavored with vanilla and studded with almonds and pistachio nuts. When you mentioned Nougat, you think of Montélimar. Correct, but here is the hitch. Montélimar is the largest producer and you find their products on many supermarket shelves around the world. Unfortunately Nougat from Montélimar has become a mass product and quality can be erratic, to be polite. So let's focus on those artisans in the Provence, who continue to produce Nougat the old fashioned way. When we visited Silvain Frères Paysans Nougatiers in St.Didier just 15 minutes south of Carpentras, we learned a lot about nougat and how it is produced.
First some history. Nougat has been around since the Middle Ages. In the 16th century Montélimar became the center of nougat production. But in many of the smaller villages in what is today the Drôme Provençal and the Northern Provence nougat was a very popular sweet and is produced there to this day. The name nougat is most likely derived from the Latin "nux gatum" (nut cake). Local tradition maintains that the name nougat comes from "tu nous gâtes", which means you spoil us.
Nougat in Montélimar is produced using a 15 min. flash cooking process. After cooling off it is wrapped in plastic and shipped. We found the nougat from Montélimar bland and very often hard as stone. That's not what we are talking about here. We want a soft nougat, rich in flavors and with plenty of almonds and pistachio nuts. So let's look at the artisan's way, the traditional way to make nougat. First the lavender honey (25kg - 55lbs) is gently heated up in a bain-marie to over 100C (212F). A mixer continuously stirs it for 2 -3 hours until the excess water has evaporated. Then sugar (75kg - 165lbs), egg white (300 eggs) and water (3 liters) are added. The temperature is crucial, high temperature means a hard nougat, low temperature a soft nougat. Finally another batch of lavender honey (5kg - 11lbs), some vanilla, peeled almonds (28kg - 68lbs) and uncooked, untoasted pistachio nuts (2kg - 4 1/2lbs) are added. The nougat mixture is poured into rectangular pans, lined with rice paper, in order to dry. In the late afternoon it is ready to be cut, packed and shipped. You can buy it next day at your favorite patisserie, confiserie or market stall.
Dark nougat does not contain any egg white. The blossom honey and toasted unskinned almonds turn the nougat dark when it is heated to very high temperatures. It is hard and brittle and has a stronger flavor than white nougat.
Our two favorite nougatiers are in Sault and St.Didier in the Vaucluse:
André Boyer, Maître Nougatier in Sault: A wonderful historic store. They produce nougat since 1887 - a wide selection of nougat, candied fruits and other traditional sweets from the region. Very fine quality. You will never ever buy nougat again at the supermarket. Sault and the Nesque Gorge are worth a visit in any case. The store is located in a side street on the right side of Sault's main street, South of the main square. Sault, Tel: 04 90 64 00 23
Silvain Frères Paysans Nougatiers in St.Didier, 6km southeast of Carpentras. Pierre and Philippe Silvain are Nougatiers in the 6th generation. We like the plane shaded main road of laid back St.Didier. Coming from Carpentras drive through the village. When you reach the old gated clock tower turn left and after 100m you see the Nougatier, located in a new building. Silvain Frères makes one of the best nougats in France. Their retail store has a wide selection of nougats, candied fruits and - when in season - quince paste. You can watch the production process through a glass window in the store. They also sell their products on various markets in the region. Route de Vénasque, 84210 Saint-Didier, Tel: 04 90 66 09 57
Various Provençal Sweets
François Doucet, Confiseur Chocolatier: A delicious variety of typical sweets from the Provence, prepared according to age old recipes in a modern facility in Oraison (12km east of Forcalquier) in the Départément Alpes de Haute Provence. François and Maggy Doucet set up a confectionery workshop in the 1970s. The second generation is expanding this successful business. For factory shop opening hours check their website. Zone Artisanale, 04700 Oraison, Tel: 04 92 78 61 15