Calissons

Aix-en-Provence prides in concocting 'Calisson' candies made with a thin candied melon paste and ground almonds topped with royal icing. Yummy

Publié le 5 August 2017 Mis à jour le 19 July 2018

There are certain culinary specialities that reflect the soul of their home town and vice-versa. Marseille boasts the Bouillabaisse - rocky, chalky, iodine-scented, hot-tempered and impetuous -, while Aix-en-Provence prides in concocting 'Calisson' candies: little, almond-scented delicacies, with their perfectly-cut, angled sides, smooth surface and voluptuous texture. But far from opposing the two cities, the 'Calisson' actually brings Aix-en-Provence and Marseille closer, because behind this candy, made with a thin candied melon paste and ground almonds topped with royal icing, also lies a distant origin. Persia to be precise...

The origins of Calisson

During the Persian Sasanian Empire, after Antiquity, from 531-579, pastry makers simply adored almond paste. They invented a sweet delicacy called the 'Lauzinaj' (at the origin of the word lozenge), consisting of a canapé topped with almost paste and drizzled with syrup. The Lauzinaj had a triangular or lozenge shape and was very likely the ancestor of the 'Calisson'.

The dessert was officially mentioned for the first time in Italy, in many nutritional treaties translated into Latin. Various books – the best-known being 'Liber de ferculis' and 'Tacuinum sanitatis' - were also published between the 11th and 13th centuries Strangely enough, their authors, Jambolin de Crémone and Faragut, did not translate the word 'Lauzinaj'. To put it simply, they transformed it into 'calisciono': an Italianization of the Latin 'calisone'. In the 15th century, Maestro Martino, in his 'Libro de arte culinaria' describes this recipe: "you will flatten the paste, then you will cover it with marzipan and cut it into large, small or medium-sized pieces that you will cook in a pan." In the same work, Martino offers a variation on the recipe, evoking marzipan laid on 'nevole' ('nieules' in ancient French, from the Latin word 'nebulae' meaning, clouds, i.e. rice bread), then cooked in the oven. Our good old 'Calisson' was born!

In the famous 'Treaty of Jams' published by Nostradamus in 1555, the wizard-come-doctor from Saint-Rémy-de-Provence wrote: "you will make little, round pies or tartlets laid on rice paper and you can cut out little squares from this rice paper." The 'Calisson' entered Provence through the front door.

And why was Aix chosen? Simply because the town of the Good King René had for many years been home to the region's main market for dried fruit, especially almonds. And that's the story in a nutshell!

Piety with a sweet tooth...

The people of Aix's love of 'Calisson' candies extends all the way to Saint-Jean-de-Malte church: one of its bells was baptized 'La Calissonne' in 2013. Moreover, every year on the first Sunday of September, the town pays tribute to the sugary little lozenge and its role in the Great Plague, which decimated the town in 1629. A year later, hundreds were dead and the assessor Martelly, who represented both public figures and the general public at the time, expressed his wish to dedicate a yearly thanksgiving ceremony to the Saint-Marie-de-la-Seds, the patron saint of Aix. The saint apparently heard the town's suffering and ended the wave of disease. Since then, thousands of 'Calisson' candies are distributed after the mass to add pleasure to piety. Who said greed was a sin?

You'll be spoilt for choice if you want to purchase some 'Calisson' candies: the town's historic quarter and surrounding areas are home to many workshops that have continued to perpetuate the traditional, home-made recipe for centuries. And plenty of them will be pleased to give you a demonstration in exchange for a nice smile! If you want to savour your 'Calisson' like a pro, avoid biting into it. Grasp the little lozenge with two fingers and snap it in two: the sugar should break cleanly after a tiny hesitation. The heart – a clever blend of candied melon paste and ground almonds - unveils a precious golden colour. Lastly, there's no permission needed, you can eat your 'Calisson' whenever you want, but you may appreciate it best with a coffee...

Calisson, masculine noun
(Provencal: Calisson, from 'canissoun', the pastry maker's wicker tray)
"Iced almond paste delicacy on a base of rice paper".
Larousse Dictionary

Le Grand Pastis offers a picture-postcard portrait of gourmet Provence. Pierre Psaltis shares his conception of gastronomy, from the simplest to the most sophisticated, presents his tasted-and-approved recipes, uncorks the finest vintages and invites you out to dinner... A concentrate of news, spiked with the inimitable local accent.

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