The origins of calissons, delicate almond-shaped slithers of candied fruit and almond paste coated in a thin layer of royal icing, are wreathed in the mists of Mediterranean legend. Both the Venetian empire, once the most powerful trading post in Southern Europe, and the kingly court of Anjou in the South of France can boast to have introduced the world to their fine flavor.
Long before the poor citizens of Paris were notoriously told to “eat cake” (the story itself a legend) starving French survivors of France’s Medieval Plague were said to have received gifts of calissons to sweeten their lot. More recently the French town of Aix-en-Provence took up the mantle as culinary capital of calissons following the introduction of almond farming in the region.
Now the New World is set to steal the calisson crown, notably the cities of New York and Belo Horizonte, Brazil. And it’s all down to one artisan: Rachel Dana. She’s the chief calisson maker and owner of Dana Confection Co. A passion for creative cooking and knack for self-sufficiency led Dana to recreate the European classic while living in South America. Initially schooled in art, filmmaking and illustration Dana was already a skilled farmer and cook by the time she moved to Brazil. Experiences of fresh produce from CSAs during a two-year stint in LA, tending to her own organic garden and work on an organic farm in Vermont encouraged her to take local ingredients and create inventive dishes such as crabapple hot pepper jam. Experience at farmers markets selling both fresh and cooked produce taught Dana about marketing and consumer tastes. Then she embarked on a new journey to Brazil, where she worked as a botanical illustrator, self-made landlord and managed an artists’ residency in Belo Horizonte for eight years. But somehow Dana still found the time to apply lessons learned back in the States to bake fresh sourdough bread as well as research and test complex dishes for herself and friends. Little did she know the beguiling yet humble calisson, first discovered on an internet search scouting for new baking recipes, would lead to new adventures.
Fascinated by the relatively unknown confection, Dana set about candying local fruits, perfecting paste and getting royally iced. Surrounded by tropical flavors and the vibrant culinary scene in Brazil, Dana tried pairing fruits with herbs and spices much like a mixologist would a cocktail. Some experiments underscored the beauty of classic flavors whilst others revealed innovative new combinations. For example, after experimenting with different local melons, candied cantaloupe, a French classic yet relatively unknown in Brazil, provided an unsurpassed sugary vibrancy to the calisson’s inner fillet of almond paste. By contrast, Stateside experiments with grapefruit provided a satisfying bitter note to counteract the sweetness with a twist. Dana added a creative touch by pairing the grapefruit with coconut and lavender to bake a calisson that gently nods to its forebears whilst boldly asserting its own unique qualities.
Initially creating small batches for herself and nearby shopkeepers, her confections found favor with local chefs including one graduate of Alex Atala’s prestigious 2 Michelin star D.O.M restaurant. The chef was so taken with the calissons he invited Dana to become a pastry chef in his Belo Horizonte restaurant, where teardrop versions were served alongside coffee as a novel accompaniment to the flavor of fruity beans.
Fast forward two years, a marriage to a Brazilian coffee farmer and a move back to New York: now Brooklyn is getting the royal calisson treatment. Ingredients for Dana confections are now sourced from local CSAs, farmers markets, herbs from her rooftop garden and upstate New York. Dana still finds and prepares ingredients for the calissons herself, producing small batches in a Ditmas Park location. A continuing passion to do something “from the ground up” motivates her to hand-select fruit and herbs. She has been known to head upstate on the trail of the perfect New York cantaloupe, only to return in a car bursting with perfect specimens.
Ironically, hunting for her delicious calissons can feel like a mission in itself. Dana started candying ingredients last summer but the finished confections only became available this January. They can currently be found in select Brooklyn locations: Bklyn Larder, Bedford Cheese Shop (with one outpost in Manhattan), Court Street Grocers, Dépanneur, Marlow & Daughters and online at Farm to People while stock lasts.
Though plans are underway to find a larger production space, Dana aspires to stay true to making small batches based on the seasonality and sustainability of ingredients. This summer, fans can expect staples such as melon and pear but also discover new varieties including cherry and strawberry. Each flavor will depend on the quality of produce available. Every batch of approximately 60 calissons requires 300g of freshly candied fruit, which spends 3-6 weeks slowly steeping in a sugar solution until fruit and sweetness attain perfect parity. When you consider how much care goes into a single calisson and their relative scarcity, the lucky shopper would be forgiven for feeling an irresistible urge hold them aloft like a trophy. That’s before they disappear, slowly dissolving on the victor’s tongue in a moment of silent joy.
Despite Dana’s creativity, she retains a watchful eye on her brand and confections. Having not only crafted calissons with Michelin-rated chefs in Brazil but also traveled to Aix-en-Provence on an inspired pilgrimage, the foodmaker holds the confection in high regard. It’s evident that despite her inventiveness and passion, Dana’s calissons represent more than just tasty bites. Like the contrast of sweet or citrusy notes with bitter herbs or the wafer-like crunch of royal icing against a generous layer of soft almond paste, this is an exercise in cultural traditions and contrasts. The calisson is deceptive: at once steeped in tradition and history yet a newcomer to the New York and Brazilian food scenes. The classic shape and consistency of these calissons would size up perfectly against their French counterparts. Yet the flavors and unusual ingredients are a touch bolder, adding a “soupçon” of something different and equally history-making. This is New World cheek meets Old World charm. For what it’s worth, that combination tastes really good.
Photos courtesy of Rachel Dana