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Verdun Sugar Coated Almonds

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During my stay at Hattonchâtel castle in France, I managed to arrange a private tour of the largest dragées factory in Verdun, dragées Braquier. 

Mr Heusele, the manager of Dragées Braquier in Verdun, is the exact opposite of the product he makes. whereas his sugar coated-almonds are sweet on the outside but bitter inside, Mr Heusele first comes across as surly but after half an hour you realize he is the sweetest man. He took me on a private tour of the largest dragée factory in Verdun. After the interview, Mr Heusele said he was sure he knew me. I said it's unlikely, but in the end we realized he had seen me on French TV a couple times. What a small world! This bought me two free boxes of beautiful dragées, and then I bought as much as I could fit in my car from the factory shop.

People have been coating almonds in honey since the Romans, but since the 1300s Verdun became the European center of sugar-coated almonds. These were said to have as many health benefits as the vitamin supplements we guys buy today, including those of increasing fertily. Naturally, dragées became a traditional gift at weddings and baptisms. The the Italy-born French queen Catherine de Medisis started eating dragées and offering them to her guests, a powerful endorsement for the product if it were.

Mr Heusele started the tour with the almond-picking room. We only use almonds from Avola, a village in Sicily. They are the most expensive in the business, €20 a kilogram wholesale. But our Sicilians friends send us all of their almonds and only some of them look good enough to make a proper dragée. So this lady's job is to sort tons of almonds by hand. She looks at each almond and decides what her fate will be. Plump, shapely almonds get to be coated in sugar and offered at weddings. Almonds that deviate from the established standards of physical beauty are mercilessly sent to be crushed and caramelized into nougatine.

There are three types of defective almonds in this business. Clockwise from the bottom left: "twins", "twisted" or "domed".

We store our almonds at 6°C (42°F) otherwise they are damaged by mites, explains Heusele. With 16 employees, Braquier makes 100 tons of candies a year.

Before the almonds are processed, they spend 6 hours in a hot room at 65°C (150°F) for drying. Then the almonds are covered with gum arabic to prevent any almond oil from seeping out and tainting the finished dragée.

A syrup is prepared with water and sugar and boiled in a large copper wat with a false bottom where steam circulates. Here we see the washing in hot water, the syrup itself makes less steam.

The picked, dried and gummed almonds are carried to a long room where dozens of large copper drums revolve slowly.

The sugar syrup is added one ladle at a time and the gentle circular movement gradually coats the almonds with sugar and polish them to a smooth finish at the same time. When they are sufficiently coated, a final dose of sugar syrup with a little coloring is added to make them pink, or green or blue.

The same drums are used to make all sorts of sweet candies, included sugar coated hazelnuts, cocoa almonds and chocolate bonbons.

I kind of like this room!

Mr Heusele takes me into the central corridor while I admire the architecture. We refurbished the factory recently, it's all clean an modern and light now., he explains modestly.

We enter a room that looks like a jewelry. Heusele shows me the jewels in his crown. We make them with pure gold - edible gold, a mixture of gold with a little silver to make it pliable. And of cours silver

These beautiful gilded sugar-coated almonds are sold in jewelry boxes, mostly in Dubai. A delicious way to eat through your savings!

The package room is abuzz with an atmosphere of concentration and work.

I ask the man weighting the cocoa coated almonds what is the measurement tolerance. They all laugh, then he answers The point is to always have at least the quantity it says on the box, otherwise we get complaints! The high season is between Easter and August, when most of the weddings take place.

We then make a little incursion into the factory shop, a huge room filled with candies of every color known to man. But these are not the industrial crap-candies soaked with chemicals we can see in some city shops. These are all artisan candies, made by hand where each almond is known by her first name. For luxury candies, they are quite cheap here at the factory. I fill my trunk with the most improbable combinations of sugar and almonds, pay and go back to see the most intriguing product made at Braquier.

Click below to read the second part of this article - the edible exploding artillery shell.

Mr Heusele does not think that the most intriguing product made at Braquier is of very good taste. But we sell 1000 chocolate shells a year, people love it. Only 200 are exported, mainly to the UK. We can't export them anymore into the US.

This is no Chinese crap. Each artillery shell has a brass base and handmade thread.

The lady in charge of artillery shells assembles each base by hand...

... carefully tying the cotton thread to a small chamber filled with smokeless powder, the kind used in guns.

The chocolate artillery shells come in three standard versions "10", "15" and "20", according to the number of gadgets inside. They work fine, the only complaints we ever get is when from time to time there is only 19 gadgets in a "20" shell, says Heusele with tongue in cheek. They go for €78 to €108 a piece. Some people order them special, and ask for wedding rings or car keys to be placed inside the shell. With gas prices going through the roof already, is that such a good idea?

The chocolate artillery shells are place upside down, filled with the candies and gadgets, and finally the exploding mechanism which will sit at the base is carefully placed.

You can probably find similar, although less tasty, wedding bombshells elsewhere. But although Mr Heusele insists that Braquier sold those candy shells already in 1869, the mention of a Verdun Bombshell for dessert is bound to catch the attention of even those with the flimsiest historical culture. For Verdun is known was the center of one the worst battles of WWI.

The visitor of Verdun who needs a reminder of how transient human life is just needs to drive on the same road were Braquier is for about 2 miles, and he will arrive at the Douaumont Ossuary. 1916 was a bumper crop for the Grim Reaper, with the military operations at Verdun leaving about 300,000 unidentified dead soldiers on the battefields in but a few months. Pétain, who successfully defended Verdun, inaugurated a large ossuary in 1920 where the young bones of those harvest by the Reaper's mighty scythe could be mourned by their families who so far did not even have a grave to weep on.

A chapel was made for each of the 52 sectors of the Battle of Verdun inside a giant church shaped like a black femur with an artillery shell as a belfry. They say it was designed to look like a giant sword buried into the earth. This is not a sight you are likely to forget, and any warmonger should visit this place to know what war comes down to. The light inside the ossuary comes from reddish stained glass and sent my camera into an immediate cerebral attack. I kept the color as it gives an impression of what you feel inside this place, where you are surrounded by the earthly remains of 300,000 people.

During the first Gulf War, in 1991, French television interviewed Antoine Pinay, a former French finance minister and WWI veteran. The journalist wanted him to bless the war and to say that cause was just. I still remember him unbuttoning his cuffs. You see, he said, showing a scar on his right wrist, I have been wounded in the First World War. There is still a piece of shrapnel in my wrist. I am now 100 years old, and it has made me suffer every single day of my life. So Madam, I do not wish war for anybody.

 

You can visit Dragées Braquier in Verdun and join the public factory tour or just ransack the extraordinary factory shop:

Dragées Braquier
http://www.dragees-braquier.com
email
50, rue du Fort de Vaux
F-55100 Verdun
France


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53 Comments

  • #1
  • Comment by Ariun
Wow. Merci beaucoup, FX. I await the next installment with great impatience!
What an inspirational post. I thank you for TWO lessons I have learned today. One of candy, and of the impact of wars. Funny how the two are linked by a tragic point in history.

I wouldn't mind getting my grubby cook's fingers on those candies to give them a try either.

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.
You know, those gold and silver coated almonds are very commonly used in Greece for memorial services (!). Anyway I enjoyed your Isanbul post too and if you ever travel to Athens please contact me. I would be happy to show you around.
Francois, what a way to show opposite poles of reality... The sweetness and pleasure of life, as depicted by the candies, and the bitterness of war and death in the Verdun countryside.

Looking forward to new posts about your culinary experiences.They complete the day for me.
I love sugared almonds so much - thank you for such an interest ing post. My son is studying the war in history at the moment so I will share you post with him too. Thank for you adding the extra photos.
  • #6
  • Answered by fx
Diane, thanks for dropping by! A visit to Verdun will reset everybody's clock as far as war is concerned. I'm glad there is something for our generations to see of that abysmal war, now that all those who saw it have gone!
  • #7
  • Answered by fx
Feyoh, thanks for your kind words! I'm glad that you could see this with my eyes, this is the paradox in Verdun, sweet candies manufactured in a place known for some of the most abject and useless butchery. But lovely people and great confectionery!
  • #8
  • Answered by fx
Johanna, thanks for your comment, I didn't know that such almonds were used for funeral services! Do they place one in the deceased's mouth so that he can pay his fare on Charon's ferry, like back in the days? I would very much like to visit Greece - what do you think could be made into an article on FXcuisine in Athens? Would it be possible for me to see the kitchens of one of these monasteries on a hill?
  • #9
  • Answered by fx
Jason, I've been eating dragées for a solid 2 weeks now and still not bored!
  • #10
  • Answered by fx
Ariun, the next Hattonchâtel installment will be the redcurrant jam, then on with the medieval banquet!
What amazing decadence!
How cool would it be to give your wife a box of these for valentines day?
Ride it like you stole it
  • #12
  • Comment by trish
Another fabulous article. I really look forward to your posts - (and now I'm late for work - again :))

Trish
  • #13
  • Comment by Mary Sanavia
Hi! All your articles are so interesting and have such beautiful pictures!. Thank you for taking the time and effort to share this wonderful places with all of us. The last one (kebabs) had some beautiful,mouthwatering pictures, I hope I can go there someday and I will know where and what to eat! I love Baklavas,so I loved that picture the most. (unreal green pistachios!).I'll be waiting for your next post.
  • #14
  • Comment by Sarah
Did you know? Silver and gold dragées are illegal in California! I guess the metals they use have tiny, insignificant trace amounts of heavy metals in them that wouldn't harm a baby, but it's enough for our government to say we can't have them. So it's yet another thing I have to be naughty and have a friend send to me if I ever want to use them.
First you hit me with the beautiful candies. Then you ever so gently hit me again with the graves of the soldiers.  Two powerful emotions in one post!  I am floored.
  • #16
  • Comment by Jason
The Douaumont ossuary is incredible. The French have honored their dead very well. Thanks for such an enlightening post!
What a fascinating article!  Great photos too!  We, Italians give these as favors for many special events, especially weddings. I still have my little bunch of almonds from my wedding over 20 years ago.  The funny thing is, I don't ever remember anyone actually eating them. ;)
  • #18
  • Comment by Laura
I always hated sugar-coated almonds.  Is it possible that I just never had a good one, like those from dragées Braquier?
What an amazing article. I've had those almonds in the US, they were called "jordan almonds", and not very good. These look like they taste amazing, as well as the cocoa coated ones. (which intrigue me more).
  • #20
  • Comment by Ivan Seligman
I love your thoughtful posts, and clean photographs. Who else could link candies and war. Glad the latter was not glamorized. It saddens me every day I read about our young men maimed and dying in Afghanistan and Iraq. Make candy, not war?

Thank you for showing me a part of the world, both cooler and less hurricane prone than semitropical Florida!
Ivan
  • #21
  • Comment by wabgalant
Thats wonderful.
  • #22
  • Comment by Stephen
Bravo!  Wonderful article!

Two quick questions:

1.  Any links to video of your appearance on French TV?

2.  Do the chocolate artillery shells actually explode?  Are they classified as a novelty firework or something similar?  What happens to the contents?  
  • #23
  • Answered by fx
Stephen, I can send you the links if you want. The chocolate shells are what English speakers call, I think, "party poppers", they do explode and throw a shower of cheap gadgets and expensive dragées all over the table. I wanted to try and photograph one exploding, but at €80 a pop and 5 tries to get one right, that's more gadgets than I need!
  • #24
  • Answered by fx
Ivan, thanks for visiting! Ah yes, war, well during WWI the young men did not last very long, in some battles tens of thousands died within hours of starting their tour of duty, and chopped down to pieces by 50 caliber machine guns. Nothing like the wars we see today, as horrible as these are too. Make candies, not war, that's my motto.
  • #25
  • Answered by fx
Laura, these almonds have a very delicate taste, first you suck it for a moment, then you give in and crunch them and your mouth is filled with delicate almond flavor. Or you get one with toasted-and-caramelized almond bits and the taste is that much more intense. Or one with chocolate and you have to close your eyes by fear of crying with delight. We also make the chocolate ones in Switzerland, actually you can make them at home, I'll try to post an article some day.
  • #26
  • Answered by fx
Laura, where did come from the best sugar-coated almond you ever tasted (but hated)? I fear there are many classes of these candies out there, but as Oscar Wilde, I have very simple tastes: the best always satisfies me.
  • #27
  • Answered by fx
Susan, but you should throw rices grains at weddings and *eat* the sugar-coated almonds. The Romans believed these increased fertility - lots of kids who will have their own wedding one day!
  • #28
  • Answered by fx
Jason, indeed this ossuary is awesome, and what's more, circumstances have made that Germans and French are buried in it, I believe, because they could not always distinguish the bones. President Kohl and Mitterand chose this very spot in 1984 to hold hands for their common memorial day honoring the people who gave their life for that delirious war.
  • #29
  • Answered by fx
Nate, I'm glad that this sweet, then bitter article pleased you!
  • #30
  • Answered by fx
Sarah, ah but in California they will eventually ban everything. Foie gras, bottled water, now silver dragées. And I'm sure you get 3 to 5 in the state penitentiary if you eat them across state lines. You deserve better politicians!
  • #31
  • Answered by fx
Mary, thanks for visiting my site, I'm glad my articles gave you mouthwater ideas for future travels!
  • #32
  • Answered by fx
Trish, one last gluttonous look at my blog and off to work!
  • #33
  • Answered by fx
Dave, you can also get the chocolate ones at Auer in Geneva and in other places, probably in Paris too and maybe mail order. Definitely an elegant Valentine present!
  • #34
  • Comment by Kat
Only the shameless conspicuous consumer idiots in a place like Dubai that is literally built on slave labor and indentured servitude would buy something as stupid as gilded almonds in jewelry boxes.  No man should be forced to spend his money any certain way but he is still open for criticism and these people are should have it heaped on them.
  • #35
  • Comment by Deborah Stratmann
I did like this article ... and the wonderful photos. We are great fans of the almond dragées. I try always to keep some on hand for the young boy who lives downstairs. I think he will be interested to see how they are made.

Thank you,
dws
  • #36
  • Answered by fx
Deborah thanks for your visit and glad to hear you found the visit and behind-the-scenes interesting!
  • #37
  • Answered by fx
"Kat" from Miami uses my blog to flush the anger and bitterness she's got inside, insulting the people of Dubai. Well, I am not a psychiatrist so I'll limit myself to answering the arguments she used in the self-cleaning.
1) Is Dubai built on "slave labor"? Well if we applied the same strict moral criterias as she seems to use to other cities, what would people think of Shanghai? Or Washington, they certainly had real slaves there? I am not sure how people in Dubai would say, but down here we might say "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?".
2) About the gilded almonds being "stupid" and a sign of "shameless conspicuous consumer idiots", I might point out that the expression was coined by Thorstein Veblen in a book which I warmly recommend but which spoke mainly about America if my memory serves me right. There are far more people in Paris eating gilded chocolates than those in Dubai who eat imported French gilded almonds. What does it matter to you in they eat gold rather than having it, like you,  on the connectors of your cellular phone's computer chips?
This is a great photo essay of your visit!
  • #39
  • Answered by fx
Shari thanks for visiting and I hope to see you back!
  • #40
  • Comment by Betsi
Dear FX,

Isn't Dubai a hot tourist spot?,I believe the reason why these Verdun's Almonds are being exported there is because of the higly demand of luxury and fancy items from around the world by TOURISTS, this is my opinion, nothing to do if Dubai natives or residents are eating gold instead of having it.
How unfortunate some people use your blog to spit anger.
Thank you for sharing this!  I am keen to try making my own medieval comfits, which are done with the same technique as sugared almonds, but with tiny spices instead, so seeing the factory photos is very inspirational.

Kiriel
Thoroughly entralled by the series, Francois.
  • #43
  • Answered by fx
Cynthia, thanks for visiting and on Friday I'll post the red currant deseeded with quills article, I just took a few more pictures of the jam, really delicious!
  • #44
  • Comment by Patrick
Hi,
I think you have made a small semantic error. Nothing major, just a slip of the brain!

you have written "Almonds that DERIVE from the established standards of physical beauty are mercilessly sent to be crushed and caramelized into nougatine."

I believe you intended to write "Almonds that DEVIATE from the established standards..."

Please don't include this as a comment.

Love the recipes and photographs!
I just loved your 'almond' story!  Thanks for all the photos.  I must post your site on mine..I just need the time..oh heck, I'll do it when I finish this.  This is a new website, gave you my old one, but this one is advertised in my ol' home town's newspaper, so I'll make a new webpage:  'Wonderful Websites', and I'll put your's at the top.

Re: Dubai

Friends of ours live & work in Dubai.  Yes, it is fancy, fancy there!  It is also very, very hot.  We have not visited there; our visits are strickly to Florida and the Caymans, with no desire to visit Dubai.  Loads of tourist there, and they all have the big bucks to spend, so gold almonds would peak their palette.

Take care. Your efforts are appreciated!
  • #46
  • Answered by fx
Eleanor, thanks for linking to FXcuisine, much appreciated! I myself hope to visit Dubai once, seems a thrilling place. But for now, scorched crane seems to be the specialty, I'll wait for the building boom to subside...
  • #47
  • Answered by fx
Patrick, thanks for the tip, unfortunately my trusted English editors are on vacation and more than the occasional typo escaped me. Do not hesitate to let me know if you find more!
  • #48
  • Comment by chris
Hello fx
lovely post. except for the bomb. I have one small gripe. under one of the photos you write
would it be too much to ask that you re-phrase it to read  
Ithink i understand what you were expressing. But I doubt you mean to say that every single person of Chinese heritage in the world works to a low standard. I certainly do not.
is that what you meant?

a slightly wounded, proudly Chinese, pretty regular visitor to this site. Chris
  • #49
  • Answered by fx
Dear Chris, I am very sorry if you felt slightly offended at my mention of a low-quality Chinese goods. I do not mean to say, at all, that Chinese people do not produce high-quality goods, and myself I drink every day Chinese tea, that's the only tea I would ever drink. I do not know much about China but it is clear to me at least that in the matter of tea nothing beats the refinement of China. And I'm sure many other things are of the same level, however you must agree that in the last 10 years China has become the huge economic power that it is by exporting mass products at the most competitive price possible. Inevitably, most of those products are not in the upper end of the market in terms of quality. But I do not mean to say that the Chinese cannot produce high quality products - I know it for a fact that they do some of the most refined teas and teapots in the world, and that can only be the tip of the iceberg I can see from my corner of the world! So, once again I apologize if this has offended readers of Chinese descent.
  • #50
  • Comment by Catherine
FX, although I am as taken aback by Kat's vehemence as anyone, there may be something to be said for the concept of evolving social mores, and while slavery was acceptable 300 years ago, times have changed. Nor is it hypocritical of us to realize the wrongdoing going on there now--I don't hold modern Germans responsible for the Holocaust, so I don't believe I should be held responsible for my ancestors' views on slavery.

I don't know why she saw fit to sour your article because of a fleeting reference to Dubai though, that was just rude.
  • #51
  • Answered by fx
Catherine, I am not one to cast the first stone, but my feeble capacity does not grasp how slavery was "acceptable" 300 years ago but not any more today. "Accepted", sure, but "acceptable" implies a constant moral standard that, given past circumstances, made it OK. The original poster commented on Dubai being a city built on slave labor, and she's from the US, so I think it's fair to point to her that she does not need to go as far as Dubai to point a finger at a city "built by slaves". Obviously I am not the one pointing the finger. But let's leave it at that and return to being slaves only of our passion for food.
  • #52
  • Comment by Howard
I lived quite near this factory when I was a child back in the early 1960's. Whenever I stopped by the workers would let me have a look around and then fill my smock pockets with coated almonds. Of course the factory was not quite as clean back then.
I also remember the chocolate Bomb shells being sold in the local sweet shops. The biggest one came with a screen you set around it for safety. I always wanted one for my birthday but we could never afford any of them.
Thanks for the memory nudge.
  • #53
  • Comment by GERMAN GARZON
Interesante el lujo e historia de esta empresa  solo que nosotros apenas comenzamos y esperaremos permanecer en el tiempo con buenos productos Soy de Colombia y quisiera saber  en cual pais producen almendras  que podamos importar a un precio economico ya que nuestros productos los ubicamos en mercados populares   
gracias por su articulo y por cu colaboracion.



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