As its birthplace prepares to celebrate its 1,300th anniversary, Marion Sauvebois lifts the lid on France’s oldest bonbon
No bigger than a pea and scarcely a gram a pop, what it lacks in size the Anis de Flavigny makes up for in endurance. While many sweets have come and gone, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain’s unassuming pearly drop has weathered centuries of upheavals and revolutions – both regicidal and industrial – not to mention the advent of Haribo, to become France’s oldest and most beloved bonbon. With the 1,300th anniversary of its birthplace, the Abbaye Saint-Pierre, it seems only right to sink our sweet tooth into Burgundy’s coveted pastille.
So let’s tuck in. It’s not clear when the Abbaye’s industrious Benedictine monks first came up with the novel idea of replacing the traditional sugar-coated almond with aniseed and producing these moreish aids to digestion. While the first recorded mention of les anis dates back to 1591, it’s believed the delicate bonbons had already been gifted “to imminent guests and as tokens of love” for centuries in the area.
What we do know is that the sweets were made by the monks at the abbey until the French Revolution – when several of the monastery buildings were destroyed and parts of the land sold off. For all the turmoil, confectioners in the village picked up the baton, dutifully churning out the coveted pastilles. By 1814, eight sweet-makers were manufacturing anis in Flavigny. They eventually merged into a single company, Galimard, which was acquired by visionary confiseur Jean Troubat in 1923. A man with a plan, namely for his “bien bon bonbon” to be on the tip of everyone’s tongues (literally), he turned a cottage industry into a household brand.
When new-fangled vending machines cropped up on the Paris Metro in 1940, Jean jumped at the opportunity to reach a wider audience and pioneered the now ubiquitous carry-and-go tin boxes, making Les Anis de Flavigny the first sweets to be sold in a distributeur. Upon taking over the business in 1965, his equally enterprising son, Nicolas, bumped up production from 80 to 250 tons and flooded every last store and petrol station with tins of the breath-freshening sweets. Now helmed by Jean’s daughter Catherine, the family firm sells 220 million bonbons a year in 45 countries.
Surprisingly, perhaps, for such an international concern, Les Anis de Flavigny counts just 35 employees, and still operates from the old Abbaye Saint-Pierre’s warren of galleries and tunnels. As for the sweets, they have been made following the same fiercely-guarded recipe since 1591. The rather labour-intensive process of enrobing the kernels has been refined over the centuries but it’s one of the few concessions to mass-production. Each aniseed is still coated in a subtly-flavoured syrup for 15 days and the bonbons are free from artificial colourings, sweeteners, flavourings and preservatives. And it’s no mean feat: it takes no fewer than two tons of rose petals to make a single litre of natural essence for the popular anis à la rose variety alone. To satisfy every taste, the versatile drop comes in a palate of flavours including blackcurrant, violet – reportedly Agatha Christie’s favourite – not to forget the original anise.
Tradition is painstakingly observed and honoured down to the packaging. A nod to the age-old custom of offering candy as a token of love, the tin boxes’ vintage illustrations tell the charming story of an infatuated shepherd who overcomes his timidity and declares his undying devotion to the object of his affection with the gift of anis. A cadeau she eagerly accepts. How could she refuse? At just four calories apiece they’re deliciously guilt-free.