Saturday, 12 September 2015

Blessed Calissons

I always love to visit Aix en Provence. A stately old university town with an arty edge, home of Paul Cézanne and the Musée Granet, the gracious tree-lined Cours Mirabeau, and small winding streets in the centre ville where you come across unexpected squares filled with restaurants, students and musicians.
But most unusual of all is Aix's own confectionary, known as 'calissons' or more formally 'Calissons d'Aix-en-Provence'.

The sweets have an amazing history, having first been dreamt up for the wedding of King Réné of Anjou to Princess Jeanne of Laval in 1545.

Of course there are many versions of the sweet's history, each one a little different, though they run along similar themes.

One event seems to have been agreed on - and that is what happened during 'La Peste' or the Great Plague in 1629-30.

It seems the parliamentarians and magistrates left town as soon as they realised there was a plague (nothing changes!) but many brave citizens stayed behind.

One of them, Monsieur Martelly, vowed that each day they would perform an Act of Grace for the Virgin of the Seds (the Patron Saint of Aix-en-Provence), if she would protect them from the plague.

Apparently the town's sweet-makers got in on the act as well and began to distribute the tiny friands among the townspeople, suggesting that by eating one calisson a day, they would be saved.

These petits friands were made from a base of almond meal mixed with fruit confit - generally melons and oranges - and topped by royal icing.

Whether it was their patron saint or the calisson that actually saved them, we are never told. The idea that it was the cats who ate the rats that carried the plague, may have been more to the point. There was no great fire as in London, but the townspeople ended up being saved from the worst effects of 'la peste'.

Today, the people of Aix-en-Provence still give thanks to their saint for protecting them from the plague - with the 'Bénédiction des Calissons' - which is celebrated each year on the first Sunday in September.
They renew Martelly's vow at the town's main cathedral, then move to the Eglise Saint-Jean-de Malte to bless the sweet.

I must admit that to my mind, it's a bit like having a bet each way!

But what a great excuse for another party.

They flock to the Cours Mirabeau where the festival takes place.

People dress in traditional Provençal costumes, dance traditional dances in the street, eat their traditional sweet - the calisson - and drink their traditional Coupo Santo (Cup of Good Health).

The Provencal chant goes: 'Venes toutei per les Calissoun''; in French: 'Venez tous au calisson' and in English: 'All come to the calisson'.

I brought some home to share with friends in my French class, but to tell the truth, they are not my favourite French sweet.

They are a little bland when you first bite into them, but are resurrected as the fruit, almond and  icing blend in the mouth. I am happy with just one - which is why there are so many still left in the box.

I think I would prefer a macaron, or a Tarte au Framboises (Raspberry tart) from our local patisserie in Les Arcs.

Do you have a favourite French sweet?


  1. Thanks for the interesting story Jan. Aix is one of my favourite places in Provence but I've never tried the Calissons. I'm ore a macaron kind of girl. Is Aix far from Les Arcs?

  2. Aix is 70km almost due west of Les Arcs - less than an hour on the A8 motorway, though we prefer to meander along the N7 through the various small towns. You drive in past Mont St Victoire - a great, long grey monolith!

  3. There is a reason for everything - even lollies. Well told Jan!
    Fortunately for me in France, I am not a sweet-tooth!
    But le vin is another thing!

  4. Of course it is! And a chilled Cotes de Provence rosé goes with everything.