You might have heard of the puffy Parisian macaron, but have you met its fashionable cousin, the calisson? They call him le câlin du palais (the palate’s kiss) or le sourire de la Reine (the Queen’s smile). Sleeker than its snooty relative, the zestful and alluring calisson embodies the charm and passion of sun-kissed Southern France.
So… what exactly is a calisson?
The calisson is a traditional candy made in the heart of Provence, more precisely the warm region of Aix-en-Provence. A perfect blend of sweet and bitter almonds, candied melons and orange peel, the “calisson d’Aix” is a southern delicacy and one of France’s most beloved candies. But whether you call it confiserie (confectionery), sucrerie (candy) or douceur (sweet), the calisson is not just a candy. It is—as one reporter put it—a “piece of happiness laid on the tongue,” goodness at its best: a true gourmandise provençale (a Provençal treat). Forget the artificial, vending-machine-health-time-bomb candy bar. In Aix, the hearty calisson is an institution—a religion, even.
But where does it come from? How is it made? And, perhaps more importantly, what does it taste like? Tag along for an exciting turn of events within the realms of French history…
The Kiss That Made Her Smile
There are many legends and stories about the origins of the jolly calisson. The most ancient references to this confectionery date back to the 12th century and they are found in an Italian book written in medieval Latin. Although the basic marzipan recipe may have been elaborated in Venice or in one of its territories during the late Middle Ages (the calisson is known as calisone in Italy and kalitsounia in Greece), others argue that the original formula was, is, and will always be Provençal.
Whatever the case, we’ve obviously picked out the most romantic story, and the one the Aixois love to tell with a sense of pride:
The year is 1454. September 10th, to be precise. On this day, the Roy René (King René), Duke of Anjou and Count of Provence, is celebrating his second marriage to 21-year-old Jeanne de Laval, a beautiful but austere young woman known for her stern manners and grim complexion. Despite an abundance of rejoicing and festivities, nothing seems to do the trick: to the King’s and his guests’ despair, the Queen consort is true to her reputation and remains as stiff as a stick and as impassive as a sea cucumber.
Nonetheless, at some point during the meal—and hoping to brighten the Queen’s face—the Master Confectioner of the King decides to prepare a delicate candy in the shape… of a smile. Shortly after tasting the candy, Jeanne’s face lights up… and she smiles! Impressed with her reaction, the guests whisper: “What is Her Royal Highness eating?” To which one of them replies, in the Provençal language: “Di calin soun” (“These are kisses”). Hence the name of the calisson, always fashioned in the voluptuous, oval shape of a kiss!
It might be safe to say that calissons are to the French what Hershey’s Kisses are to the Americans: a beacon of sweetness to cheer us up. However, although both are delicious, in all modesty some may argue that French Kisses are more intense and passionate.
Oh, by the way, when enunciating the candy’s curvy name, do make sure to stress that ‘i’ sound in calisson (ee as in kiwi). Otherwise, you might end up saying caleçon, which means “trunks” or “boxer shorts” in French. Just for the heads up. If not, when looking for the precious bonbon, instead of a pâtisserie, locals might point toward a lingerie…
But enough naughtiness. Let’s get to the core of our candy.
From Tree to Candy, Almond to Calisson
Five hundred years on, the calissons are still the reigning Kings of Aix-en-Provence. Every winter, while walking around the city’s Saint-Sauveur neighborhood, visitors find themselves surrounded by a multicolored army of calissons tastefully displayed in the storefront windows of boulangeries, pâtisseries and boutiques de souvenirs alike.
However, before laying graciously and defenseless on a pastry shop shelf, each calisson has endured a long and tedious voyage that has brought its flavors to perfection. But before indulging in its savor, let’s visit the largest of Provence’s twenty calisson factories (calissonniers). Founded by Ernest Guillet in 1920, the calissonnier Le Roy René (yes, just like the King!) now produces 50 million calissons each year.
Before entering the factory floor, where 50 artisans apply themselves to producing the mouth-watering candies, Gilles Proter—one of the maîtres calissonniers (calissons master confectioners)—proudly unveils the secret formula: “To make a calisson, you must add one third of sweet and bitter almonds from Provence and the Mediterranean to one third of orange peels and candied melons farmed in Provence and around the Mediterranean to one third of sugar syrup. That is the traditional recipe inherited from the 15th century.” One third times three is one. Got it. Now, let’s talk fabrication.
To make a good calisson, six “ings” are needed:
- Rehydrating. Before arriving at the factory, sweet almonds harvested in the orchards around Aix-en-Provence are dried up and their brown skin is removed. In order for them to be worked into a paste, thousands of them are poured into a machine that will rehydrate them with steam for about 10 minutes, before being spread over a vibrating screen to remove excess water.
- Blending. The soft and rehydrated almonds are then added to a grinder with candied fruits (95% melon, 5% orange peel). The sugar-coated melons used for the preparation of calissons usually come from the city of Apt, dubbed “the world capital of candied fruits.” In the 14thcentury, Apt was already supplying the yummy treats to the Popes residing in neighboring Avignon.
- Kneading. The resulting coarse paste of almonds and candied fruits, called broyat, is then moved on a conveyor belt to a kneading machine. Hot liquid beet sugar and bitter almond oil are added to the mélange. The kneading machine then blends the ingredients and smoothens the texture of the mix, that can now be rightfully called pâte à calisson (calisson paste). Finally, a worker cuts the paste into lumps and sets them aside for 72 hours so the sugar can mature and stabilize.
- Shaping. Three days later, the pâte à calisson is ready for use! Although it is now partly automated, the shaping of the calissons is still considered a specialized skill. Chantal Colbato, our senior calissonneuse on the floor, explains: “I place the hostie (a wafer-thin sheet of unleavened bread) on top of a mold perforated with oval holes. When I lower the top pistons of the press, the paste is forced with the wafer underneath into the mold.” Although she has to be standing for hours maneuvering the machines, Chantal is proud of her savoir-faire: “I do it with love and with all my heart. It’s a trade of passion representative of Provence that is passed down from generation to generation.” But the best is yet to come.
- Icing. Once the top pistons go up, the excess paste is skimmed off and a thin fold stencil is applied over the mold. This stencil now allows Chantal to cover the candies with a thin layer of royal icing (a mix of icing sugar and whipped egg whites passed through a strainer). Once the stencil is lifted off, bottom pistons pierce the wafer base of the candies out of the mold, and… voilà! The calissons are born!
- Boxing. Once off the press, the confectionaries are placed into an oven for about 10 minutes. This baking time brings their royal icing to a gorgeous shiny state. Unlike creamy icing, royal icing becomes hard and glossy. Needless to say, after going through so much our heroic calissons now deserve to rest a little: once dry, many of them will be carefully wrapped by hand and sealed in the typical, diamond-shaped box, before being shipped to French pâtisseries and luxury boutiques all over the world.
Le Roy René is indeed the main confectioner of calissons in France, however smaller family-owned businesses also contribute to keeping the tradition alive. For instance, Maffren Confiseur has been making premium sweets—signature calissons, nougats, marzipan figurines, caramels, chocolate candies and other confectioneries—tirelessly since 1945. Using top-quality raw materials found in the region, Maffren, who relocated in the 1950s in an old chocolate factory near the Alps, not only produces classical calissons but also new, inventive flavors (orange, lavender, hazelnut, apricot, coffee, etc.), new shapes (round, square, etc.) as well as a miniature version of the originals: the cute calissous! A favorite among kids.
Crunchy on the Outside, Creamy on the Inside
We can’t possibly leave a candy-making factory without indulging in the obvious. Plus, we need to support these hard-working confectioners. Word is, nowadays it’s very hard for the candy makers to make any money at all, because half the production is eaten by the staff while the calissons are being made… so they need our help.
Ready to try a calisson?
Tasting a calisson is like taking a trip to the Moon in a supersonic Concorde. First, the explosion. At takeoff, as your teeth make contact with the bright royal icing, a never-felt-before sensation of crunchiness induces a burst of dopamine in your brain and body. Make sure your seatbelt is on. Then comes the creaminess. As you reach the fringes of atmosphere and stabilize in outer space, you feel transported by a sense of unctuousness. No worries, it’s the effect of the pâte à calisson. Finally, the dense paste underneath your teeth gives way to a soft yet crisp wafer, cushioning your landing. That’s it. You made it to the Moon. You can now take it away and snap it off. As you combine under your palate the crunchy icing with the velvety paste and the unleavened bread, an array of flavors invades your mouth: melon, almond, hints of orange, a touch of honey… You’re in heaven. You can smile, now.
While smiling, you wonder: “How did they manage to squeeze so much goodness in what could be a single bite?” Well said. As a reminder, a calisson must not be devoured, gobbled up ruthlessly. It’s a gourmet delicacy that follows a strict étiquette: at least two bites. Let’s have some decorum, please.
Now, to sum it all up. I know it’s completely unnecessary, but for the sake of rhyme, here are at least three good reasons to vote for calissons:
- They’re chic. As with so many things French, calissons are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. From shaping to packaging, a great deal of attention is given to detail. Usually displayed in a pearl-white oval box, calissons make for a beautiful present or wedding gift to family or friends. When opening the case, your loved ones will be delighted to discover the picturesque candies tastefully arranged in diagonal rows and layers.
- They’re healthier. Sure, they’ve got sugar. And if you eat too many, you’ll get a sugar rush. I mean… they’re candies. But the calissons are far more natural and organic than your average candy. In an article for Cuisine d’ici, journalist Olivia Bertin comments: “Besides being so tasty, the calissons show impressive properties. The melon, their main ingredient, is a great source of antioxidants and vitamin C. The almonds are rich in proteins and unsaturated lipids. They bring vitamins, minerals and fibers to the body. Whether you have them as a snack or with coffee, the calissons will boost your organism!”
- They’re just… irrésistibles. You just can’t have enough. The calissons are the seedless grapes of candies: nothing to peel, crack or unwrap, nothing to throw away nor spit out… just a mouthful of goodness. Its bite-size, aerodynamic shape doesn’t help either in resisting its seductive powers. Honestly, with the marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), I must admit the calissons are at the very top of my list of favorite French candies.
As we leave the factory, the words of Laure Pierrismard, head of the UFCA (Union of Calisson Confectioners of Aix-en-Provence), still ring in our ears: “The calisson is one of the ‘13 desserts of Provence.’ Although this candy is deeply rooted in our tradition, our true purpose is to share it with the whole wide world.”So… what are you waiting for? Put a smile on your face, and grab a calisson!