Christmas in Provence is steeped in tradition, both religious and culinary. It’s the culinary ones that mainly survive today and one of these is the eating of glacé, or candied fruit during the festivities. Now candied fruit is not something that I think about with great relish, my experience of it being the odd glacé cherry here or there in a cake or atop a rather disgusting cocktail, but mention it to a French person and their eyes glaze over as they enthuse about its delectability.
Sugar, for most of us in the Western World, is one of the badies of a healthy diet and the idea of replacing a fruit’s natural water (good) with sugar (bad) is incomprehensible to most of us today. But it wasn’t always so, in fact when the crusaders first brought sugar back from their adventures in the Holy Lands, it was considered to be a health tonic. It was so rare and expensive that it became known as ‘White Gold’ and as with all things rare and expensive was greatly coveted. So in the early 16th century the clever Portuguese and Spaniards set about expanding their sugar interests and started planting plantations in their newly acquired colonies in the West Indies and South America. France and England were quick to follow and sugar became an important trading commodity creating great wealth for both countries. This meant that although still expensive and a luxury, sugar became more easily available in the 16th century and people started to experiment with its culinary and medicinal uses.
One of these people was Nostradamus who lived in Saint Rémy de Provence and besides being an astronomer and predictor of the end of the World, had trained as an apothecary. No doubt he looked around at all the wonderful fruit that still grows abundantly in the Rhône basin and wondered how it could be preserved beyond its own short season. He travelled to Milan in 1549 and sought out an apothecary living there who specialised in vegetable alchemy using sugar. When Nostradamus came back to France with his newly acquired knowledge, he wrote a treaty called Petit Traité de Fardements et Confitures or “Treatise on Beauty Secrets and Preserves” in 1552 which besides giving numerous beauty and health tips, laid out the basic recipe for preserving whole fruits, pears, oranges, lemons and cherries in sugar.
It is this same recipe that is used today at Lilamand, artisanal makers of fruit confit who are also located in the town of St Rémy de Provence. As they are only a few kilometres from where I live, I decided to go and pay them a visit to find out more.
Pierre Lilamand, who is the fifth generation working in the family business, the company was started in 1886, kindly showed me around and explained the process to me.
The first and most important part is the growing and the quality of the fruit. Today a lot of the fruit is grown especially for Lilamand, using old varieties that are no longer commonly grown. The fruit has to be perfect, with no blemishes or bruising and must not be too ripe.
After harvesting, the fruit is peeled and boiled in large vats of sugar and glucose up to 7 or 8 times over a three-week period, each successive bath having higher sugar content until the water in the fruit is completely replaced by the sugar. The fruit is left in a sugar syrup for 2 months and then dried on a rack for another week before it is packaged and sent on its way.
All in all the whole process takes three to four months and all of the work is done by hand. It is both skilled and exacting and the slightest error can cause the fruit to collapse and become mush.
Even though candied fruit may have lost its appeal for us today, it is still widely used by pâtissiers around the World and will no doubt be gracing many a Provençal table this Christmas.
5.Avenue Albert Schweitzer
13210 SAINT-REMY DE PROVENCE
Bon Noël and hope to see you in the New Year! Don’t forget to leave a comment and let me know you’re there!