Sunday, June 19, 2011

The old-fashioned charm of candied flowers and Flavigny sweets

One of the things I love about France is the fact that at least about food, it is a conservative nation that doesn't just ditch or monkey with old-fashioned favourites just because they've come down from an earlier time. Not only do people keep traditions in cooking and making things by 'artisanal' methods, they also perpetuate old manufacturing firms which have been producing their local specialities for centuries. That includes not only the obvious things like cassoulet and pates and chestnut purees and so on, but also things like cordials, syrups, sweets, and candied flowers.

Toulouse is well-known for its many culinary products based on the city's most famous flower, the violet. You can get violet sweets, violet syrups to flavour creams and icecreams, but most of all you can get candied violet petals. They are a charming and delicious decoration for cakes and can also be crushed and used as a kind of praline in desserts. But though the violet is far and away the most famous product of Toulouse's candying industry, rose petals and mimosa buds are also used, as well as angelica--the latter you used to be able to get in Australia but I've not seen for years. I always bring back some candied flowers from Toulouse and when I use them on a cake or a dessert, I'm always reminded of the beautiful violet-seller doll my parents had bought me once--she was pretty and dark-haired, dressed in a violet-coloured skirt and white top, with a little straw bat and a straw basket containing candied violets. It seemed to me like one of those magical things, and I ate those violets slowly, over days and days, savouring each mouthful. Even now, the taste of candied flowers reminds me of childhood times in France.

As do the lovely little oval tins of 'Anis de Flavigny', the little white-sugar-coated aniseed sweets that come in various floral flavours, including violet, jasmine, rose, orange flower water, and more. On each little tin is a charming illustration of young lovers in the costumes of the 18th or 19th centuries, canoodling on a bench or under a flowering tree, or whatever. Inexpensive and easily found in just about every grocery shop or supermarket, they are not only fun to collect but also make great little distinctive gifts for people back home as well, especially but not only children!

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