Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Flavigny Violet Pastilles

Anis de Flavigny
Maison Troubat, from $3.50

When I was growing up in Tennessee, a trip to Disney World was a sort of middle school rite of passage. In the weeks leading up to my family's pilgrimage, I pored over guidebooks and drafted daily schedules that would maximize my time on the park's best rides.

But as we all know, even the best-laid plans change. In this instance, Epcot Center was my undoing. At the time, I hadn't yet been to any of the countries represented by the pavilions in Epcot's international area, and I found even those lite versions more intriguing than roller coasters. I spent hours wandering the souks in "Morocco," pawing through trinkets in "China," and drinking sweet, milky tea in "England".

It was in "France" that I first tried Flavigny pastilles, small round white candies packed in floral-print tins. The hard sugar balls clacked against my teeth like tiny marbles, discouraging any attempt at crunching down. I learned to wait patiently for the flavored sugar to dissolve before biting into the single, tiny aniseed hidden in the center for a hit of herbal flavor. Whenever I was able to tear myself away from Epcot's gentler pleasures for a ride on Space Mountain or Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, I perfumed the air with anise-scented screams.

It turns out that Anis de Flavigny are even more evocative than my 12-year-old self could have imagined. If you've seen the film Chocolat, you've seen Flavigny, the picturesque village in Burgandy where the candies have been made for more than a thousand years. In some sense their history dates back even further, to a period more than 2,000 years ago when Roman soldiers introduced aniseed to territory they'd won from the Gauls, and a retired general called Flavinius settled on the hilly site that still bears his name.

Like so many dainty and labor-intensive delicacies, Anise de Flavigny were once produced by a religious community. The Benedictine monks of the Flavigny Abbey made their pastilles from the most exotic and expensive ingredients, including perfumed oils and distillates that required tons of herbs or blossoms to produce. Their candies found an enthusiastic following among the French aristocracy; Madame de Pompadour was one famous fan. Following the dissolution of monastic communities during the French Revolution, a number of local candy makers took up pastille production.

Today anis de Flavigny are made by a single, secular company, La Maison Troubat. The third generation of candy-making Troubats work in buildings that were once part of the Abbey complex, and use a recipe that dates from 1591. They offer Anis de Flavigny in a range of 10 all-natural flavors: plain anise, blackcurrant, lemon, orange blossom, ginger, tangerine, mint, liquorice, rose and violet.

The technique used to make anis de Flavigny is known as panning. This ancient process has an almost pan-global history; it has been used to make sweets as diverse as Portuguese confeito, Japanese konpeito, Jordan almonds, and Boston Baked Beans. Placed in large copper kettles over gentle heat, the aniseeds and flavored sugar syrup are tumbled together so that the sugar slowly builds up on the seed. It takes 15 days of careful spinning for to grow a pastille to the size of a pea.

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