The calisson is a small, distinctive, almond-shaped candy which first appeared in Aix-en-Provence in the fifteenth century, during the reign of Good King René. The following legend is often associated with its creation…
A King, a Queen, and a Candy
Jeanne de Laval wasn’t pleased when she found out that her father had signed a marriage contract with King René. Yes, he was a powerful man who had a lot of titles, which could be an attractive quality… but she was 21 years old and he was an “old man” of 45 years. He was also a widower: his first wife had died the year before, after bearing him nine children, three of whom were still alive and living at home. And what about all his illegitimate children? What could she expect from a philanderer like that?
Jeanne might have preferred a younger, more handsome man, but it was a time in history when daughters had to marry the man their father chose for them, so Jeanne did. She did everything she was supposed to do, but her heart wasn’t in it, and she never smiled. The King bought her fine clothes and exquisite jewels. He brought in jesters to perform and tell her jokes. He did everything he could think of to make his wife happy, but to no avail.
In 1457 the royal couple moved to Aix-en-Provence after spending the first three years of their marriage in Angers. A great celebration was held to welcome the new Queen and to introduce her to the people of Aix. King René wanted to make a good impression on his wife and his subjects, so he instructed his Italian chef to whip up a special surprise to be presented after dinner. The result was a treat made of almonds and candied fruit. As a tribute to the new Queen, the chef formed this delicacy in the shape of her lovely, but ever-so-sad eyes.
At the sumptuous meal in her honor, the melancholy Jeanne picked at her food, not really enjoying it. There was music, there were jesters, and everyone seemed to be having a good time – except the Queen. Dessert came around, and she half-heartedly picked up one of the little eye-shaped treats and nibbled at it. It was such a pleasant surprise, that the Queen smiled for the first time since her marriage. Her grin captured the people’s hearts and they felt as if she was giving them all little hugs. “Little hugs” in Provençal is “di calin soun” and therefore, the delicacy became known as a calisson.
It seems that the queen wasn’t grumpy after all, she just wanted something sweet to eat. Once the King realized this and provided her with daily sweets, they had a very happy marriage.
These little candies probably originated in Italy around the twelfth century, and even if they weren’t actually invented to make Queen Jeanne smile, they did first appear in Provence during King René’s reign.
The Calisson Recipe
Marcel Pagnol, the Provençal writer, explained the calisson recipe like this: “one third almonds, one third candied fruit, one third sugar, and most importantly, one third know-how and love of a job well done…” Well, it’s a good thing Pagnol was a writer and not a mathematician.
A more typical recipe for this little sweet is 40% ground almonds and 60% candied fruit, with melon being the fruit of choice. The locally-grown almonds and fruit are made into a paste, then formed into little wafers and topped with white frosting. The original calisson was melon-flavored, but now you can find them in a variety of fruity flavors.
You can read more about the calisson and Provence in my book, Curious Histories of Provence: Tales from the South of France.
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- You can read more about the calisson in this article from Perfectly Provence.