Crispy millefeuille, rich opera cake, zesty tarte au citron — we’re all familiar with the charms of French pâtisserie. But what of its equally delightful cousin, la confiserie? Sweets, candy, bonbons, confectionery: however you refer to them, France is home to over two hundred varieties of traditional candies, and it was the first country in Europe to commercialize sugar cane.
Given the country’s serious approach to gastronomy, it’s perhaps unsurprising that French candy is considered both an art and a prestigious artisan trade. In what follows, I briefly trace the long and fascinating history of la confiserie française, offer insight into a few national traditions and regional variations, then take you on a whirl through one of the finest (and oldest) candy shops in Paris.
First, a Bit of History: The Origins of La Confiserie
The sweet, hand-made delicacies enjoyed across France today have a long history. While patisserie and cake-making are often traced back to the 13th century and a man named Regnaut-Barbon, who in 1270 founded a guild of pastry chefs, la confiserie has an even older pedigree, beginning in the Middle Ages. It was around this time that sugar arrived in France, albeit in small quantities.
It was consumed only by kings and lords,and in the form of épices de chambre (room spices) — a heady mixture of seeds, pine nuts, almonds, cinnamon, and ginger rolled in sugar and fried in a pan. Candies were traditionally eaten in the royal bedrooms pour mieux s’en régaler (to enjoy them more fully), and were also consumed at the King’s court, usually as a digestif following savory fare.
Later in the 13th century, the introduction of sugar cane by the crusaders gave rise to more confectionery-like creations, with the first luxury confiserie appearing in the form of candied fruit and marmalades. For the most part, though, sugar remained strictly medicinal – much like other spices – and tended to be sold by apothecaries for large sums of money.
It wasn’t until the 16thcentury, with Europe’s burgeoning sugar trade (and corresponding transatlantic slave trade) that we start to see bonbons begin to emerge in France more regularly. The first sugar-and-almond-based dragées, for instance, were used as part of religious ceremonies in Avignon beginning in this period.
In 1547, Florentine aristocrat Catherine de’ Medici, wife to Henry II, was crowned Queen of France at the Basilica of Saint-Denis. Her influence on the country’s cuisine is well documented. Compared to the regal and sophisticated dining experience enjoyed by Florentine aristocracy in the mid 16th century, French cuisine and dining habits were relatively unrefined.
Spoons and knives may have already been in use, but forks were not, and meals in France typically consisted of large buffets eaten by hand. The Italians had abandoned buffets, preferring instead to consume individual portions, in feasts often consisting of up to 12 courses. Reportedly declaring French food to be primitive and outdated, Queen Catherine set about introducing Italian culinary habits to the French court.
Significantly, she also introduced new sweet treats, and with the help of Florentine artisans, began to import new products such as jams, jellies, marzipan, glazed chestnuts, frangipane, and more. These imports eventually gave rise to the opening of France’s first-ever confiserie in Paris, in 1760 (see more below).
Towards The Democratization of Confectionery?
Not only have sweet shops increased in number over the centuries, but since the Industrial Revolution there has been a shift away from handmade exclusivity and towards mass-produced confectionery that is affordable to all.
When the first confiserie opened its doors in the 18th century, the tasty sweets were reserved for the upper-classes only. Confectionery was a singularly aristocratic pleasure.
It wasn’t until the mid-20th century that cheaper sweets and chocolates became more readily available in bakeries and convenience stores. Industrially produced Carambar (caramel and fruit-flavored sticks), and ourson guimauves (chocolate-covered marshmallow teddy bears) flew off the shelves — and have continued to do so ever since. In fact, on average in France, 400 million marshmallow bears are consumed each year!
The French might love to engage in lengthy discussions about terroir, and they may have some of the most gorgeous confectionery shops in the world, but they’re not above indulging in industrial candy. The obsession that French adults and children alike have with the luridly hued, Smurf-shaped Haribo (gummy treats) is fascinating, and the same can be said of Lutti Fizz bottles – known popularly as “the candies that sparkle with pleasure”.
Also, as a Brit, I was ecstatic to discover the five-centimes ‘pick n’ mix’ at boulangeries in France: the old-school clear cabinets filled to the brim with enticing (and cheap) sweets to choose from; these are now only a distant memory in the UK.
National Traditions, Regional Variations
Sweets are taken so seriously in France that there’s even a national union dedicated to candy. The Syndicat National de la Confiserie is tasked with ensuring “the diversity and quality” of French candy, and with supporting artisan sweet shops and businesses.
There’s also a special day earmarked to celebrate sweet delights! La Journée des Petits Plaisirs (Day of Little Pleasures) is celebrated on the 5th of October, an occasion when restaurants, bars and shops in 15 different cities (including Paris, Toulouse, and Lille) set about distributing mountains of candy — more than 25,000 bags a year, to be precise.
The public are asked to vote for a favourite ‘little pleasure place’, and the winning establishment receives 1,000 Euros. Pretty sweet, non?
Much like other food items in France, traditional confectionery varies from region to region. And where better to begin than in Paris — the birthplace of the country’s first confectionery shop. For a capital long associated with glamour and sophistication, it’s interesting that one of the most famous sweets to emerge from it is fairly modest.
Palets de dames consist simply of a plain round biscuit glazed with a thin layer of icing, and are sometimes flavored lightly with rum. They’re said to have been conceived in the 18th century as a French pastry chef was watching a group of women chatting at the Palais Royal — the white glaze supposedly representing the ladies’ delicate clothing.
Though simple, Palets de Dames are the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. Baked correctly, they should have a soft, cake-like texture, with the savoriness from the biscuit balanced perfectly with the sweet icing. If you’re lucky, you’ll find the ones with rum-soaked raisins: a worthwhile break with tradition.
Just south of Paris, the Auvergne region might be best known for its unctuous aligot (a cheesy mashed potato concoction) and hearty hotpots, but it has lots to offer in the way of confectionary, too. A favorite is pâte de fruits, usually served in retro (often kitschy) colored tins. Good pâte de fruits should be tender and not overly sweet, the taste of the fruit being the dominant flavor.
When the town of Clermont Ferrand first produced this confiserie (formerly known as “dry jam”) in the 15th century, flavor options were fairly limited and the confections were made with seasonal ingredients. French confectioners nowadays experiment with fruits from overseas (banana, lychee, yuzu) and even play with savory notes, such as basil, carrot and cardamom.
Keep heading south and you’ll be introduced to some of France’s (arguably) most treasured confectionery. Calissons, from pretty Aix-en-Provence, are enjoyed by most families across France on Christmas Day. There’s something sublimely classy about them: perhaps it’s their sleek, distinctive almond shape, or their decidedly grown-up tasting notes?
Maybe it’s the fact that they were (according to legend) popularised by a king who sought to woo his new queen — the sweet allegedly prompting her first smile since they’d wed. Whatever the secret behind their charm, calissons are sweet royalty. Composed of one-third candied fruit, one-third crushed almond, and one-third fondant icing, they’re marzipan-y and deliciously dense. It’s little wonder that they are now regionally protected, with strict rules in place regarding their production.
Next up, In the spirit of entente cordiale, we’ll agree that berlingots — characterised by their vibrant colors and pointy triangle shapes — have origins in two different French regions: Carpentras in Vaucluse, and Nantes in Loire-Atlantique. They’re one of the oldest boiled sweets in France and, by the 1950s, berlingots de Carpentras were one of the most consumed sweets in the country, with over 2,000 tons produced each year.
This latter variation of the berlingot is distinguished by its translucency and stripes. The first prototypes were red, flavored with mint, and (unpromisingly for a sweet treat) sold in apothecaries to prevent foul breath.
It wasn’t until the 1930s that they were enjoyed as confectionery – pretty much by the entire nation – helped by Fernand River’s 1939 film Berlingot et Compagnie, a romantic tale in which two fairground workers selling the sweets win a load of money and set up a sweet shop of their own.
Berlingots nantais, meanwhile, are opaque and covered in a dusting of icing sugar. Their heyday came in the late 19th century, as the people of Nantes took advantage of their port, bringing sugar back from the West Indies. Now, they’re most popular at Christmas, and with tourists in the summer.
If caramel is more your thing, then it’s time to head to the northwest of France, and a region as renowned for its buttery delights as it is for its attractive coastal landscapes. Niniches are caramel lollipops from Quiberon in Brittany.
Invented fairly recently (1946), by Raymond Audebert, to this day the basic recipe remains unchanged. Cane sugar, milk and salted butter from the region form the base of the recipe, but there are over 50 varieties available, from fruity numbers like pear, lemon, and apricot, to more aromatic flavors such as coffee and hazelnut.
Buttery, moreish, and long-lasting on the palate, they’re adored by adults and kids alike. Brittany is also home to caramels au beurre salé, a sort of grown-up version of niniches. Salted caramel may have taken large swathes of the world (not least Japan!) by storm in recent years, but it is here that you’ll find the best.
Traditionally, there are only a handful of variations (made with almonds, hazelnuts, and sometimes walnuts), but that isn’t to say that they’re uninspiring: 1980 saw caramels au beurre salé prized as the best sweet in France!
And there’s plenty of caramel-y competition. Isigny sur Mer is a small town in Normandy, famous for its dairy production. In 1894 it welcomed its first industrial dairy company (DuPont d’Isigny) and, in the same year, an employee –Ernest Fleutot – began producing a caramel confectionary with milk and sour cream from the factory. These caramels au beurre d’Isigny are characterised by their dark color and toasty, gently bitter notes. Varieties nowadays include caramels spiked with Normandy calvados, espresso powder, and dark chocolate.
À La Mère de Famille and the Birth of the Confiserie in Paris
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t find the glitz and beauty of traditional French candy purveyors alluring. It feels like a step back in time every time I enter À La Mère de Famille, the first confiserie to open its doors in the capital.
Paris’ oldest artisan confectionery shop, it started out as a greengrocer, opened in 1761 by a young man named Pierre Jean-Bernard from nearby Coulommiers. Its historic flagship, located at 35 rue du Faubourg Montmartre, suited the area’s then-rather provincial ambiance. With offerings of simple yet tasty delicacies such as pots of honey and hearty praline cakes, attracting a regular crowd of residents.
As for the mère, she didn’t come into the picture until 1807, when a young Marie-Adelaide Bridault, the widow of one of Pierre-Jean Bernard’s stepsons, took over the business. A single mother of four, it was she who truly put this confiserie on the map, winning the shop a recommendation by one of the world’s first food critics, Alexandre Grimod de la Reyniere in his Almanac des Gourmands.
Reyniere’s accolades, coupled with the Grands Boulevards district’s burgeoning fashionableness and popularity with writers and musicians, gave rise to the shop’s golden age, and it was during this time that Marie-Adelaide Bridault gave her name to the establishment. À La Mère de Famille was born.
Gone were the days of simple pots of honey. By that time, sugar had become more widely available in France (thanks to the development of beet sugar) and as the 19th century unfolded À La Mère de Famille continued to push the boundaries of sweet-making, embracing the multitude of possibilities sugar offered, and serving an array of tantalising treats.
Specialities included négus de nevers – a soft, buttery caramel flavored with chocolate or coffee – sticky Florentine cookies and fragrant candied fruits. By the 1860s, the shop had turned its hand to biscuits, and was one of the very first distribution points of that much-adored French biscuit, le Petit Beurre.
By 1895 the ambitious and colorful Georges Lecoeur had taken over the business, focusing his attention on À La Mère de Famille’s brand image. In keeping with the Belle Époque, the redesigned the shop’s façade with gold engravings and deep green marble, and produced plush advertising brochures.
His superfine jams were awarded medals at the International Culinary Exhibition in Paris, and he introduced new products, such as Chinese tea and pineapple from Singapore.
Visiting the Shop Today
With a total of addresses now in Paris (all in the spirit of the original shop on rue du Faubourg Montmartre, with ornate gold and green facades) the confectionery makers continue to devote their expertise and creativity to each delicacy sold across the city. The same goods enjoyed in the 18th and 19th centuries (florentines, pâte de fruits, marrons glacés) continue to be sold — albeit with more refined packaging, and a greater range of flavors (think brightly- colored Calissons and spreadable salted caramel).
However, even a longstanding institution such as À La Mère de Famille is diversifying its products, and nowadays it and other confiseries also sell artisanal glaces (ice creams) and macarons, among other products. Perhaps these new flavors and products reflect the shifting palates of their customers. Do people still primarily opt for traditional sweets, or are they more attracted to modern creations?
I pose the question to one of the staff members at the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre flagship shop. The answer, I’m informed, lies somewhere in between. Most customers (locals and visitors alike) are tickled by the vintage offerings, with marrons glacés being one of the store’s most popular purchases. In particular, if customers are visiting to purchase a gift for someone else, they tend to opt for tried-and-tested treats.
But their less conventional, usually chocolate-laden, offerings are also a firm favorite: children and adults apparently go crazy for their folies de l’ecureuil — roasted and caramelised almonds and hazelnuts coated in chocolate and sprinkled with cocoa powder.
Other Notable French Candy Shops & Confiseries in Paris
À La Mère de Famille may well have been the first confiserie to pop up in France, but hundreds of others have followed in its footsteps, each offering different types of confectionery.
In Paris alone there are several confiseries in each arrondissement — and you can bet that Parisians will always have an opinion on which is the best.
Here are just a few I recommend.
Le Bonbon au Palais — 19 Rue Monge, 75005 Paris
Käramell — 15 R. des Martyrs, 75009 Paris
Le Bonbon Français — 20 Rue du Pont aux Choux, 75003 Paris