Excerpt from Ari’s Top 5 enews
“Aix” marks the confectionery spot, nearly six centuries down the road
Calissons d’Aix are the centuries-old confection of the town of Aix in Provence, France. While common in their homeland, they are incredibly obscure most everywhere else. History has it that Calissons came to the region originally from Italy for the wedding of King René in 1473. Their popularity grew in the following century as almonds, brought by Arab conquerors to the northern Mediterranean, began to be grown in the region for the first time. Calissons are, along with items like turron or marzipan, marvelous examples of what high-quality confectionery was like in Europe in the years before cacao was still unknown.
Calissons are made from just a handful of ingredients. Almonds are one. Then there’s the special paste made of dried melon from the town of Carpentras. The melons are pretty magical in their fresh state—dried, candied, and then ground down, that specialness is the culinary centerpiece of the calissons. Almonds, candied melon, and sugar (in syrup form) are mixed, baked gently for about half an hour, and then left to stand for a few days to facilitate the melding of flavors. The newly completed calissons are handcrafted onto rice paper and then completed with what’s called royal icing (a combination of sugar, egg whites, and water) to make a firm, very white sugar crust.
The calissons we carry are made by the nearly 200-year-old confectionery firm of Arnaud Soubeyran. They’ve been at it since 1837, when M. Arnaud and Madame Soubeyran came together to open a confectionery shop. (This example of gender equity in business was certainly uncommon for the era.) Madame Soubeyran ran the shop until she was 91! The company continued to gain fame for the excellence of their products, and the family continued into the second half of the 20th century, until 1977, when financial troubles caused it to close. Fortunately, another local family soon purchased the recipes and the name and picked up where the founding family had left off. They continue to cook in copper kettles, to stick to the original recipes, and actually to improve the quality—they currently have 20 hectares of organic almonds growing, and 40 hives for honey as well. In 2005, they even opened a Nougat Museum to honor the region’s traditions!
Today, calissons may seem like just a small footnote in the 21st world of confectionery, but they remain something truly special. In a world where flashy desserts get most of the sweet attention, calissons are a bit of historical nonconformity in the best possible way. Over five hundred years of Provencal tradition packed into these small, carefully constructed, diamond-shaped, sweet bites. An elegant, marvelously Mediterranean coming together of fruits, nuts, and sugar. Break one in half, take in the aroma, nibble in small little slivers. Sip some tea, take a bite, lean into culinary history, and enjoy!