07 October 2013

Sweet Shops: the Calissons in Aix-en-Provence

There are recipes for making your own calissons. Really? Why? It's so much easier (and way more fun) to make a little pilgrimage to Aix-en-Provence and taste test your way through the shops that produce those authentic frosted little cookie/cakes in the shape of an almond.

Made from an almost marzipan like mix of candied fruit (usually melons and oranges) along with ground almonds (Aix is famous for its almonds), the sweet consists of three layers: a thin communion-like wafer bottom, the almond plus fruit paste, and then a tiny spoonful of royal icing on top.
A cake decorated with calissons at
the acclaimed pastry shop Riederer

The confectionary's legendary "birth" is one of my favorite parts of the candy
Apparently, in 1473, a young woman (in her 20s) was not so happy about the 44-year old provencal "king" (whose first wife had died) and that her dad had set her up to marry. So the king's chef decided to create a candy to sweeten her up at the wedding dinner. That candy was the calisson. (What a chef: he knew the way to a woman's heart.)

The truth is, it's probably more likely (but also more boring), that the calisson coincided with the appearance of the almond to Provence in the 16th century--and the subsequent trade that followed in Aix as its almond production grew.

Today, numerous shops and factories produce the calisson--in all sorts of various flavors and sizes and tastes. There is even a savory cocktail version which I wish now I would have tried.

A few calisson and sweet shops I managed to visit while recently in Aix-en-Provence:
Calissons du Roy Rene: A charming shop on a picturesque street near the town square, this is a great place for sampling: Bins in back are filled with all sorts of non-traditional flavored calissons like lavender and jasmine ( I still liked the traditional flavor best). There is also a small video set up way in back of the shop to show the production of the calisson.
Confiserie Lenoard Parli-La Grande Fabrique: I loved this little gem of a shop and the way they wrapped up each package (no matter how small) of calissons with ribbon. Actually, all the sweet shops seem to take packaging up your purchases prettily!
Patisserie Bechard: Alas, this shop on the beautiful boulevard, Cours Mirabeau, was closed the day I was there--it's considered the oldest pastry shop in the city (opened in 1870) and I was super disappointed. Besides all the classic French pastries and calissons, I really wanted to try their Tarte Tropezienne, a house specialty for which I need to return!
Reiderer: This pastry shop is loaded with outstanding and beautiful creations--and those who have seen Kings of Pastry will understand why. Riederer's pastry chef Phillipe Segond has won the MOF (Meilleur Ouvrier de France) award (we'd say Best Worker in France) which is not exactly easy to achieve.