Every year, Ooh La La enters our confections to the most prestigious food awards in the world, the Oscars of the food industry, the United Kingdom’s Great Taste. We recently received our 2020 results from the judges. Before I do the big reveal, I want to offer an ode to my most favourite confection and the inspiration behind my confectionery calling; the delicate and delicious calisson….
Did you know that the calisson was the unsung hero of the Black Plague?
Let me take you back to the South of France in the 1500s. It was a bleak period in history… the Black Plague had been around for some time already. At that time, Nostradamus was living in Saint Remy. I have a special affinity for Nostradamus. Relax, I am not about to reveal that I am an undercover
prophet… rather, Nostradamus is an undercover confectioner. I am not kidding! An apothecarist by training, his greatest work was a tome on the science of preserving fruit in sugar, called fruit confit. His book gained recognition as a kind of bible for apothecarists and doctors but it was also quickly hailed as an important culinary work.
In fact his ideas on candied fruit would become the cornerstone of the greatest delicacies in the world. Legend has it (see the Ooh La La story), that a little chef in Aix-en-Provence combined candied melon and orange rind as per Nostradamus’s advice, mixed them with crushed almonds and placed this mixture carefully on a piece of wafer paper, covered with a royal
glaze. And so, the calisson was born, to this day, the city’s most famous delicacy.
The invention of the calisson lifted everyone’s spirits, yet the Black Plague continued to slowly spread through France. The important leaders of Provence, already aware of Nostradamus’s genius, convinced him to re-locate to Aix bringing his sage medical counsel to the Provencal capital. Nostradamus approvingly noted that the people of Provence were already receiving their requisite confit requirements in the most delicious way possible, through the calisson (You see why I like his way of thinking!)
The people of Provence soon incorporated the calisson in the
highest ritual of the church, the Catholic mass. The delicacy sat on host paper after all. I love to think that this little delicacy was surprised to find itself on a purple velvet pillow, serving not just people’s taste-buds, but their souls.
The High Priest Martelly, on 20 January 1630, famously declared in front of leading nobles and all the people, that should Aix en Provence be spared from the Plague (Yes, this is a direct link! Believe me), they would always remember God’s kindness. Since then, calissons were handed out at every mass, replacing the traditional communion wafer. So calissons were combined with Catholic devotion and guess what – the people were spared from the plague! Every year on the first Sunday of September, this act is commemorated with a beautiful ceremony called the Benediction des Calissons d’Aix where the story of how the people of Provence were saved from the Black Plague is recalled and celebrated. At the centre of the ceremony is our little hero, the calisson.
I had longed to attend this ceremony for years. Some people go to
Jerusalem and others voyage on the Camino de Santiago. My pilgrimage was to be to a little church called Saint-Jean-de Malte in Aix-en-Provence. As I walked up the church stairs I could have converted on the spot!! (but the religion was really my little calissons). I thought of Nostradamus, candied confit and the way this little confection had saved a town. Watching the calisson on its holy pillow, I felt called… not to God per se, but to pursue the making of this candied confection in all its glory. I wanted to be a part of the calisson dream forever. Little did I know that this little confection was to steal my heart to such an extent that my entire life path would change, in the sweetest way!
The calisson is a subtle and sophisticated confection. To make a calisson is a feat of sensual and intellectual mastery, the nuclear physics of the confectionery world. The skills range from the science of candying the fruit to then combining the ingredients with such artistry that a calisson is created. The level of dedication means you need to be holding the dream of the calisson in mind. It needs to matter… a lot! Let’s put it this way: its difficulty became such an intellectual challenge and getting it right became such a matter of will, determination and passion that it started to distract me from my actual profession as an advocate!!
Over the years I have worked with a number of magical people in my factory who have helped our calisson become a rising star, from Tshidi to Chris to Mabel, all of them joined me in my passion to produce a calisson on the southern tip of Africa that would be on par with the most authentic Provencal delicacy. One of my mentors, the wonderful Madame Akabou, who runs a famous confectionery boutique near Montmarte who would taste my calisson from year to year and share her critique and feedback. I also, in a way, thank my teachers at Lenôtre Paris, who although taught me the foundations of French Confectionery but insisted that for me to truly learn about Calisson, I needed to go to the true Calissoniers in Provance (And I listened). They have all helped Ooh La La’s calisson to shine. And shine it has, for Ooh La La’s calisson has received many awards and brings joy to sauvants of all things edible.
But then in March, when COVID -19 hit South Africa the whole journey of Ooh La La and of our calissons and our nougat and our marshmallows ground to a halt. Like Willy Wonka’s factory, everything went silent for a while. Yet, I knew that Ooh La La had to keep going. Many families rely on our little factory for their incomes and we have all poured our skills, sweat and imagination into the Ooh La La Universe. My employees stayed at home, but I could hear the protest of the little Ooh La La characters, the little Chef who makes our calisson, Little Napolean who champions our nougat, the little Toreador and King Louis. It was as if they stood on the rims of our copper pans and gesticulated, ‘Karen what about us? What about this universe? You need to keep going.’ Still, I feared that we would not even be able to send our confections across to the UK to be tasted in the Great Taste Awards. With planes grounded and borders closed, it looked as if our calissons and all our confectionery would remain in Johannesburg deprived of our annual Great Taste accolades.
A few months later, as South Africa braced in readiness for the pandemic,
industries started to re-open. Like the castle in Sleeping Beauty when the spell breaks, Ooh La La started to awaken from its slumber. A few days a week, a few batches at a time, our copper pots started to boil and swirl with sugary, buttery delectables. The little Ooh La characters nodded in approval. A new kindness had emerged in this new COVID reality, and the Great Taste judges immediately agreed that Ooh La La could still submit our confections, even though the deadline had long passed. And Ooh La La confections crossed the world and the oceans at a time when very little was moving down the road. I like to believe the Little Chef flew across in the box with them.
Two months ago, on the 21 st of September, we received our results from the Great Taste. Ooh La La received many, many awards, but this note is about an incredibly unusual award which we received. And so here is the big reveal: We are bursting with pride that Ooh La La’s calissons, both the original flavour and our calissons dipped in dark chocolate are officially the only calissons in the entire world to have both received Double Gold Stars at the Great Taste Awards this year! This is the highest accolade that has ever been awarded for calissons, at the most prestigious food competition in the world. If I understand this correctly, this means that Ooh La La’s calissons are officially the finest calissons in our solar system!
The joy we all felt was unsurpassed. Friends, I am so grateful. It’s been the year of pandemic and hardship and yet this award gives our team (and our little characters) hope and encouragement at a very hard time. And so now you will understand when I exclaim, who would have dreamed that this little confection, the calisson, would have been able to save people from a great plague… again!!!!!