Calissons and Navettes
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The other day, we went to the Bénédiction des Calissons, which celebrates the deliverance of Aix from the plague. Aix, like many other parts of Europe, had repeatedly been ravaged by the plague when, in 1629, it was hit again. In an attempt to protect the citizenry, the city fathers sequestered the people to their houses and constructed on each street corner, above the ground floor, a niche with a statue of the Virgin Mary to which they could pray from their windows. [Many of these oratories survive to this day].
When this did not slow down the plague the local notables decided to leave the city, but not before a desperate last appeal was made to the Virgin of the Seds, patron saint of Aix, at a high mass during which a local almond-paste sweet was used instead of bread which was not available. This soft candy being handed out from the chalice (la calice) came to be known as the Calisson.
The Virgin heard, the plague passed, and ever since then the City of Aix has been giving thanks on the first Sunday of September. The ceremony, which takes place inside and in front of the Church of St. John of Malta, is very colorful – with singers and dancers in traditional Provençal costume, the brotherhood of Les Patissiers de Calissons in whites with toque, fyfe and drum bands, and – surprise – Louis XIV with his mother Anne of Austria, in wig and full regalia, accompanied by half a dozen children dressed in brocades and finery of the time. It made for a very pretty picture, although Louis XIV was not even born at the time of the event that was being celebrated.
Then everybody moved inside the church, where a choir sang, the archbishop spoke some appropriate words and blessed the calissons that were displayed in baskets on the altar, and the costumed children sat prettily on the altar steps. One tired little boy among them, perhaps 3 years old, decided to lie down. As the last notes died down and people filed out behind the blessed calissons that were going to be handed out on the church square, the last priest to leave the altar noticed a little lump, all brocade and lace, on the altar steps. The little page boy was so sound asleep that he had to be carried outside. I hope somebody saved a calisson for him.
In early February another sweet is celebrated, this time in Marseille where the traditional Navette was born. The origin of this boat-shaped biscuit is claimed by both the Roman Catholic church and by local superstition. Again, the church takes the lead as the archbishop celebrates La Chandeleur (Candlemas, when Jesus was presented in the Temple), and recalls the very first such celebration by the Phoceans, Greek sailors who founded Marseille more than 2600 years ago when they arrived by boat and established Massalia. To some, the boat-shaped cookie is meant to replicate this ancestral Phocean vessel, while for the archbishop it represents the arrival of Christ’s word and christianity on the Mediterranean shores.
Before the celebratory mass at Saint Victor’s in the old port of Marseille, cadets of the Merchant Marine academy sail out to Pointe Rouge some 10 kilometers eastward and carry back The Gospel as well as the statue of the Black Virgin who guards St. Victor’s crypts that hold the remains of the martyrs. Baskets of Navettes spread their delicate orange scent throughout the church before they get blessed by the archbishop and handed out after mass.
If you miss these church-blessed freebies, rest assured that any self-respecting patisserie in this area will be glad to sell you the paying kind.
TAKING ROOT IN PROVENCE by Anne-Marie Simons is available on Amazon.com.
Anne-Marie Simons has worked as a translator, teacher, journalist, sportswriter (covering Formula One races) and director of corporate communications. Now happily retired, she lives in the south of France.
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