December 11, 2012
The French are incorrigible gourmands. At a time when sugar has been demonized, they continue to shamelessly manufacture old-fashioned candies—holding fast to an ancestral savoir-faire in a typically ornery response to globalization and the invasion of agribusiness giants.
Of course, there are lots of industrially produced candies in any French bakery or supermarket, but in every province in the country there are still artisans who concoct candies the old-fashioned way. Far from being forgotten, their traditional sweets are becoming more and more treasured. Rare and often expensive bonbons are given as gifts—a way of honoring the recipients by showing how certain you are of their good taste, and how sure you are that the exceptional bonbons will be appreciated for their just worth.
In fact, the ingredients of traditional candies can range from the rare and costly to the very ordinary. Some regional bonbons are well known, others remain secrets within their own little corner of the world. Some might be more beautiful than tasty, but all remain an Ariadne’s thread stretching back through the labyrinth of time, often linked to monastic communities that were all-powerful in centuries past—undoubtedly a little sugar sweetened the rigor of the rules.
While some of these treats are now industrially manufactured—and not always in their traditional place of origin—often small local production continues, patronized by those in the know. Voici, in alphabetical order and not at all objective, our list of authentic artisans—a tour de la France sucrée.
Angélique de Niort
Angelica is an umbelliferous plant that grows in the Marais Poitevin, the marshy area of the Poitou Charente region often compared to Louisiana’s bayous. Originally from northern Europe, where it was eaten as a vegetable, angelica has been cultivated since the Middle Ages, and was named for heavenly assistance because it was believed to cure snakebites and fight off the plague. The medicinal plant became a delicacy in the 18th century thanks to nuns who had the bright idea of candying the stems. Beautifully green in color, the candied stems are widely used in pastry. In Niort, the woody stems are softened for eight days in a sugar solution and, according to tradition, some of the pieces are then shaped into a bestiary of animals native to the marais. Unique and subtle in flavor, angélique has its unconditional fans. It also goes into the making of a highly prized liqueur. Etablissements Thonnard Ave de Sevreau, Niort, 05.49.73.47.42. website
Anis de Flavigny
Everyone in France knows these little white drops made up of a gram of sugar and an anise seed. The last company that still makes them is the Maison Troubat, which turns out some 250 tons of them a year. Their fabrication has hardly changed since the confection’s birth in a Burgundian abbey in the late 16th century. There’s still no artificial flavoring, sweetener or color for these candies, which also come plain or flavored with violets (Miss Marple’s favorite), orange blossom, mint or lemon—but true addicts prefer the refreshing anise. They’re sold in cardboard boxes with the picture of a shepherd offering the sweet to his lady love, with the abbey in the background. The same image has been reproduced on little oval metal boxes that have long been favorites with candy lovers. The plant is open to the public for visits, and the aroma inside is bewitching. Anis de Flavigny Rue de l’Abbaye, Flavigny sur Ozerain, 03.80.96.20.88. website
Bergamote de Nancy
In 1850, following advice from a perfumer friend, confiseur Godefroy Lillich added some essence of bergamot to his boiled sugar sweets. Bergamot, a citrus fruit native to Sicily, is inedible in its natural state but its essential oil is frequently used in perfume. The candy was an immediate success, and by the turn of the century the craze for bergamot candy had spread around the world. The unique bergamot flavor has been granted IGP (Indication Géographique Protégée) status. Bergamot is added to the boiling sugar just before it’s poured out onto an oiled marble slab. The sheet of soft candy is then hand-stamped like a waffle and cut into squares. The color is a beautiful translucent yellow and the flavor is at once subtle and powerful. Pastry chefs in Lorraine use them in ice cream, sorbets and soufflés. Bergamotes are found in many chocolate and pastry shops in Nancy—one good source is the chocolatier-confiseur Lalonde. Nathalie Lalonde 3 rue Stanislas, Nancy, 03.83.35.60.27. website
Berlingot de Carpentras
The berlingot is an ancient candy with a cooked-sugar base. Nantes and Carpentras both claim to be its birthplace, but the translucent, tetrahedron-shaped sweets are made in many provinces. What sets those from Carpentras apart is that they’re made from the sugar syrup used to make candied fruit—another regional specialty. After the fruit is cooked in the syrup and removed, the syrup is boiled down a second time. The sugary mass is then kneaded, spread out on a slab and flavored, originally with anise, mint, orange and lemon. Today the flavor range is larger, including melon, rose, cherry, coffee, chocolate and many others. Legend says the berlingot was invented at the time of Pope Clement V, the first pope to live in nearby Avignon. It was originally a medicinal product, with active ingredients added to the sugar, and it was sold by apothecaries. Only in the mid-19th century did it become a simple candy, which didn’t prevent it from almost disappearing. Today, two manufacturers remain. One of them is Serge Clavel, a fifth-generation confiseur who uses only natural coloring and flavorings and has reintroduced traditional metal boxes. Confiserie de Carpentras Allée Jean Jaurès, Carpentras, 04.90.67.31.30. e-mail
Bêtise de Cambrai
Bêtise means an error, a stupid or silly thing, and the bêtise de Cambrai, it’s said, was born of two mistakes made by an apprentice: He let the sugar cook too long, and was too generous with the mint flavoring. Two manufacturers remain in Cambrai. One is industrial; the other is a very small company, Despinoy, which was the market leader until World War II. The company closed, reopened, and barely struggled along until 1988, when the owner’s son, François Campion, took it over and relaunched it along traditional lines. Now Campion and his seven employees produce 130 tons of bêtises a year, using Mitcham mint. According to Campion, Mitcham mint is to ordinary mint essence what a grand cru Bordeaux is to table wine. The candy’s snowy color comes from microscopic air bubbles formed in the sugar syrup when it is beaten vigorously. Campion also produces a liqueur, La Crème de Bêtise. Confiserie Despinoy 1519 Route Nationale, Fontaine Notre Dame (near Cambrai). 03.27.83.57.57. e-mail
The calisson is said to have been invented for the second wedding of King René, the Count of Provence, in the mid-15th century. Whether or not that’s true, the calisson is the quintessence of Provence, a mixture of blanched almonds, candied melon and candied orange peel. The almonds are finely ground with the candied fruit, and the resulting paste is kneaded and heated before being molded and baked. The lozenge shape is instantly recognizable—a brilliant white, crunchy frosting covers the soft center that sits on a rice-flour wafer with the consistency of a communion host. Extremely rich and very delicate, its taste is unique. These days the almonds come from Spain and the melon is sometimes replaced by other candied fruits, and every maker has his own secret recipe. What’s important is to buy them from a shop that has a high turnover; calissons harden quickly and they’re best when fresh and soft. A family business, Léonard Parli makes its own candied melon, taking three weeks for the process instead of four days, and the calissons are all the better for it. Another family firm, Fruidoraix, makes mini-calissons whose sugar icing comes in various pastel shades. Léonard Parli 35 ave Victor Hugo, Aix en Provence, 04.42.26.05.71. website. Fruidoraix 295 rue Agate, Pôle d’Activité les Vallades, Eguilles, 04.42.52.51.80. website
Caramel au Beurre Salé
Salted butter caramel was invented only 30 years ago, but few candies have been so often copied. It was a stroke of genius by a young Breton, caramelier-chocolatier Henri Le Roux, who wanted to create a confection that would immediately make customers think of Brittany. The first thalassotherapy spa in Quiberon had become a great success, and thanks to chic spa-goers, the candy’s fame grew rapidly. It was taken up by the press and Le Roux and his wife Lorraine were soon overwhelmed. But there was no question of expanding to industrial size, even though, largely copied, the flavor has spread around the world. Some claim that the original recipe is an ancient family one, but that’s nonsense. While butter has always been salted in Brittany, the region was much too poor in the past to have created such a rich confection. Sugar, salted butter, walnuts, hazelnuts and chopped almonds—that’s the real CBS® whose brand is trademarked. They are instantly addictive. Henri Le Roux 18 rue de Port Maria, Quiberon, 02.97.50.06.83. And in Paris at two addresses: 1 rue de Bourbon-le-Château, 6th, 01.82.28.49.80; and 24 rue des Martyrs, 9th, 01.82.28.49.83. website
Coquelicot de Nemours
Like many other traditional sweets, this flat, rectangular, hard red candy created in 1870 almost disappeared. Once again it was a young entrepreneur, Denis Jullemier, who revived this specialty of the town of Nemours in Ile de France. In June and July, wild poppies are picked from nearby fallow fields made available by farmers who don’t saturate their fields with chemicals. Each year, the harvest of dried petals is converted into a flavoring that goes into candies, syrup, liqueur, vinegar and poppy limonade. Des Lis Chocolat 6 rue Louis Blériot, Nemours, 01.64.29.20.20. website
This confection, between a jelly and a pâte de fruit, made from sugar and quince juice, has been known since the Middle Ages. François I loved cotignacs, and they were a favorite indulgence at the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV. Sold in little round wooden boxes, they are now made by only one confiseur, Benoît Gouchault, who makes a mere 30,000 boxes a year. Although he was eagerly courted by industrial candy companies, Gouchault decided to pass his recipe on to the local hotel school, so that the tradition could continue and artisan confiseurs would start making them again. For the moment, cotignacs are available in all the good pâtisseries of Orléans. Benoît Gouchault 30 bis rue de Voisinas, Saint-Ay, 02.38.88.84.66. e-mail
Forestine de Bourges
This beautiful bonbon, claiming to be the first filled candy, was invented by Georges Forest in 1878. Since it was inherited by Georges Tavernier at the turn of the century, four generations have maintained the excellence of the delicate candy. As lovely to look at as it is delicious to taste, it resembles a cocoon of silk threads in delicate colors. The outer shell is shiny, crunchy and layered; the praline inside is made of ground hazelnuts, grilled almonds and chocolate. Magnifique! La Maison des Forestines 3 place Cujas, Bourges, 02.48.24.00.24. website
Grisette de Montpellier
A minuscule ball the size of a pea made from licorice, honey and gum arabic, the grisette was offered to pilgrims en route to Santiago de Compostela during the Middle Ages. It took a determined German, Raymond Müller, who had studied agronomy in Montpellier, to bring it back. After a stint in the Foreign Legion and adventures around the world, he returned to Montpellier to relaunch the grisette, following a recipe he’d found by chance—the product derived from the local beekeeping industry and the licorice plant that once grew here so abundantly. A small team now produces 12 tons a year and grisettes are found all over town. Rucher de la Hacienda 1005 blvd de la Lironde, Montferrier sur Lez, 04.67.59.92.26. website
Négus de Nevers
It’s without a doubt one of the most beautiful candies to behold, and also one of the most delicious. Imagine a soft chocolate caramel covered by a hard, translucent, golden layer of more caramel. Ambrosia encased in amber. The sensation when you bite into it is indescribable: two very similar flavors, two very different consistencies. The recipe has not changed since it was created in 1901 for the arrival in France of Menelik II, the “king of kings”, the Negus of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia). Fresh butter and milk, cocoa from the best sources and an unrivaled savoir-faire ensure that the négus of Nevers retains its excellence. It resembles no other candy, except perhaps its cousin, made in a similar way, the coffee-flavored abyssin. Au Négus 96 rue François Mitterrand, Nevers, 03.86.61.06.85. website
Nougat de Montélimar, Nougat de Provence
Montélimar nougat is white and can be either soft or hard; nougat de Provence comes in both black and white. White nougat is composed of blanched and grilled almonds and pistachios, honey, sugar syrup and egg whites—with a minimum of 28% almonds, 28% honey and 2% pistachios. The honey is heated in a double boiler, the egg whites are beaten, and the almonds and pistachios go in last. The more honey, the softer the nougat—and the more expensive. Poured into wooden molds lined with unleavened bread (for easier unmolding) it is then cut into pieces. Black nougat is supposed to be made only with lavender honey and almonds, and the best companies follow that rule. The two nougats are often part of the traditional thirteen desserts at a Provençal Christmas feast. Arnaud Soubeyran RN7, Quartier des Blaches, Montélimar, 04.75.51.01.35. website; Nougaterie André Boyer Place de l’Europe, Sault, 04.90.64.00.23. website; Silvain Frères, Paysans Nougatiers (who produce their own honey and almonds) Place de la Poste, Saint-Didier, 04.90.66.09.57. website
Pâtes de fruits d’Auvergne
At one time, the Auvergne region was full of orchards. To preserve the fruit, starting in the 15th century, the Auvergnats made confiture sèche, or dry jam—now called pâte de fruits. The fruits are first scalded to soften them, then crushed. The pulp is reduced by half through evaporation and the same weight in sugar is added. After lengthy cooking, the reduced pulp is poured onto slabs or into molds. Cut into cubes and sprinkled with sugar, the pâte is wrapped and ready. Noël Cruzilles 226 ave Jean Mermoz, Clermont-Ferrand, 04.73.91.24.46. website
Prasline de Montargis
We owe to Clément Jaluzot, chef for the Duc du Plessis-Praslin, maréchal de France under Louis XIII, the invention of this devilish confection. It has come down to us without any real changes—a high-quality almond, grilled and cooked in a sugar syrup that slowly transforms into caramel. Jaluzot left the duke’s service and returned to his native Montargis, where he opened a boutique to sell his praslines. True praslines are nothing at all like the imitations sold at every carnival. Those from the Maison Léon Mazet, Jaluzot’s former shop, are all sweetness—taste one and you’ll ask for another and another. The adorable Benoît Digeon-Mazet, Léon’s grandson, maintains the tradition in this shop from another era, worth visiting just for the decor. Au Duc de Praslin 43 rue du Général Leclerc, Montargis, 02.38.98.63.55. And in Paris at 37 rue des Archives, 4th, 01.44.05.18.08. website
Violette de Toulouse
In most places, crystallized violets are used only for pastry decoration, but in Toulouse they are popular candies on their own. The tradition of sugared flowers dates to the 13th century. Toulouse’s Candiflor factory opened in 1818 and has been in operation ever since. The flavor of a crystallized violet is extremely subtle and the secret of its fabrication well guarded. What is known is that the flowers can’t wait. As soon as they’re received they’re washed, shaken dry, powdered with icing sugar, dried and sterilized, then kept cool and dry. As needed, they're plunged into a bath of burning-hot sugar at a precise (and never revealed) temperature and dried in the open air. The same method is used for flower petals, mint leaves, verbena leaves and seeds. Candiflor 12 impasse Descouloubre, Toulouse, 05.34.25.12.25. website
Originally published in the November 2010 issue of France Today; updated in December 2012
France Today magazine. A unique insider’s perspective on French travel,
culture, real estate and much more. Subscribe today.