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Specific to the southern town of Aix-en-Provence, calissons are a French dessert taken very seriously and sold in specialist shops; much like the macaron, they are also wrapped in pretty packages. Here’s a brief run down on how they are made and where to find the best ones.
Calissons have been made using the same recipe ever since they were introduced to Aix centuries ago. They are quite similar to marzipan in texture.
Calissons are a mixture of sweet almonds (which are ground to fine pieces), candied-local melon, and orange peel. The mixture is then put onto a thin layer of wafer and topped with royal icing.
It’s not quite known when calissons were first made, but it’s likely that they originated in Italy; there are references to calissons in texts from the 13th century. The calisson is pretty similar to the kalitsounia, a dessert made from marzipan and cloves that was popular in Crete, occupied by Venetians during the same time.
It’s thought that calissons started to become popular in Aix during the 16th century because this is when Aix started to regularly grow almonds as crops. They are always almond-shaped and normally the same length—a couple of centimetres long. Legend has it that they were first introduced to celebrate the marriage of Kind René of Aix to Princess Jeanne de Laval in 1454. Legend also has it that Princess Jeanne didn’t want to marry a man who was twice her age. The calisson is supposed to have made her forget about her unhappiness.
No one seems sure where the word “calisson” comes from. Some think that it comes from the French word “calin” for cuddle, harking back to King René’s plan to make his new wife happy. Others think it stems from the Latin, “venite ad calicem” which priests used to chant to invite people to “come to the chalice” during Mass. They would also put calissons on their chalices during festivals for people to eat. It was often thought that the calisson would protect locals from illness. During the Great Plague of 1629, people ate calissons to ward off bad luck and protect themselves.
There are lots of great places to buy calissons in Aix today. Stay in Aix and head to the famous-calisson shops Léonard Parli or Patisserie Béchard, or go to Le Roy René just outside of town. No one is sure if they’ll help defeat the plague or provide much-needed marital harmony, but one thing’s for sure: they taste delicious.