A bit like Willy Wonka in the chocolate factory, the story of Tamara in the Anis de Flavigny bon bon factory. “A very bon bonbon” – that’s how the jingle goes isn’t it? “Un bien bon bon”… The visit to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain is a sweet, sugar and chocolate-coated one. Quite a contrast coming from the once très bloody battlefields of Alesia … The hilly cité medievale was a key location for Lasse Hallstrom’s film Chocolat in 2000.
I have a rendezvous with Madame Anis, Catherine Troubat, at the aniseed factory. What I hadn’t realised is that behind the picturesque shopfront (with the quaint bonbon truck parked outside) … lies another historic Burgundy Abbey. The Abbaye de Flavigny.
The aniseed smell hits us in the face as we open the door on the bonbon boutique. Its shelves implode with sweets and sweet sights – charming old world style boxes of bonbons and other specialty products from France and beyond: Italian Amarelli Liquirizia from Calabria – Pierrot Gourmand sucettes (lollypops) – honey, mustard, miel, pain d’epice, artisan chocolate.
In a second room tasting platters of all the Anis de Flavigny flavours – classical and modern convolutions – are laid out on a table. As we wait for Catherine, I stuff so many in my mouth my cheeks are bulging. And I can no longer tell my rose from reglisse. Far from the connoisseur treatment and much more the glutton – the way to fully appreciate the flavour is to melt them in your mouth two by two to reveal the heart of the essence. A flavour explosion contained deep in each sweet.
I’m so excited to see the new organic range – aniseed, ginger, mint, blackcurrant, tangerine – popping up among the iconic oval tins of little bonbons. The most classical of which have to be the aniseed, violet and rose.
Today there are also pocket size, pastel boxes of mini or “petit anis” – “no larger than a grain of rice” says Catherine – stacked on the shelves. Her grandfather bought the factory in 1923.
“Visiting from Dijon he fell head over heels in love with the history of the anis and the Benedictine Abbey the factory is located within,” she says leading us out to the crypte des anis. The ancient crypt concealed within the abbey’s golden colonnades dates to Charlemagne’s reign – and is a remnant of the 8th century abbey-church – echoing back to Gallo-Roman style. (History buffs can read more here).
Though we seem a world away from the battlefields of Alesia in the plains below, we’re still entrenched in the Roman history of the area. As is the village of Flavigny itself. You can never get too far away from the Romans in Burgundy! (And thank goodness for that, for without them it would be a very wineless stay).
Caesar set up a hillside camp on the slopes here during his siege of Alesia. The village’s name comes from one of his generals Flavinius, who received a big chunk of hillside land for his bloody battlefield efforts in 52BC. It was first called Flaviniacum. The monks of Flavigny had been churning out bonbons since 1591.
That’s quite an historic sweet!
Their true source dates to Caesar’s days – he apparently took aniseeds with him to help sustain his troops. Flavinius – a great traveller – brought the anis back from Syria. The monks are thought to have replaced the usual almond found in sugared candies of the day with aniseed.
“The sweets are still made with the same 5 century old recipe – using just three ingredients – sugar beet, essential oil of star anise, and one green anise seed,” Catherine says guiding us through the boughs of the factory then up a spiral staircase to the anis production hub.
Up in the factory the bonbons are taking a shower – cooled down with water to harden each progressive layer of candied sugar added over a 15-day period … Like wrapping layers and layers of robes around an increasingly tubby monk. Only these are far thinner layers.
Placed in traditional copper pans, the bonbons are gradually enrobed in a totally natural dress – free from all artificial colours, flavours, sweeteners and preservatives. 95% of the ingredients and all the packaging comes from France.
Exported all over the world, (a total of 220 million sweets to 35 countries) the bonbons are made in enough flavour scope to cater to cultural differences.
“Americans love the violet flavour,” says Catherine. “Latin’s love the traditional star anise flavour but aniseed doesn’t go down very well in Asia … Asians love the lemon and rose flavours …” (Something I will have to keep in mind before packing my case with bonbon tins later in the year before flying home to Australia via Asia). No doubt ginger, mandarin and orange blossom will work a treat in the Orient too.
Back downstairs, in the Café des Anis – a lovely wooden den with a French window view onto Flavigny – Catherine introduces us to a host of other taste marvels, from France and abroad.
The Bonnat chocolat – which I know well –the rather exotic Marou Faiseurs de Chocolat, a Vietnamese French hybrid in exquisitely designed packets. The Saigon made chocolate is wrapped in gorgeous Indochine inspired colours and print high on the flavour of oriental voyages.
As I sip on my limonade artisinale – Mojito flavoured and beautifully apple hued – Joseph downs an absinthe. Wow after one small drop, I wish I could join him – but not with such a big day ahead of me!
I love this photo below with the drip caught in motion from the beautiful vintage drink dispenser from the Maison Guy Pontarlier distillery. Of course the absinthe must couple up superbly with the anis de Flavigny, being aniseed flavoured itself.
The café walls are hemmed in by glass cabinets filled with anis de Flavigny curiosities. Old signs, boxes and bonbon dispensers.
The Musée des Anis spills over into the neighbouring room – I love particularly the vending machines which were placed in metro and train stations and department stores in the 1950s. (This is when the tins were invented – prior to that the anis were sold in long cardboard tubes – beautifully faded in time into vintage pastel glory)
… And then there’s the love story that underpins the package design. Of the village shepherd and rose-embracing shepherdess he falls in love with. Each of the tins depicts a scene from that somewhat mushy but sweet tale.
I come away set for a bonbon and chocolate overdose. Catherine kindly presents me with a stack of takeaway goodies – gift packets of the tins and the mini bonbons in myriad flavours. I have to say my preference is still the traditional anis, and the organic ginger, as my pick from the ‘new world’ flavours.
As we exit through the old city door, haybales are doing roly-poly down the equally undulating Auxois countryside. A landscape of pleated hillside pastures, bottle green forest folds and distant plateau. The wafts of anis embalming the village and blowing in the breeze signal rain – according to village ‘elders’. For now we have nothing but blue skies (and a couple of aniseed-plump clouds) hovering above.
The Anis de Flavigny website with visiting hours and tours: www.anis-flavigny.com
Burgundy Tourism www.burgundy-tourism.com
The Most Beautiful Villages of France www.les-plus-beaux-villages-de-france.org
Lastly, here’s a link to a little video about the Burgundy bonbon factory and it’s region. A chance to practice some French, salivate and ogle up some true French paysans at the same time. And there’s a map so you can make your way to the bonbon village!