I smelled it as soon as I stepped off the train in Montelimar. Suddenly aware that my stomach was a little unsettled from watching the scenery whiz past the window at 300 kilometers an hour, I caught a whiff of something sweet, sticky and pervasive. As Parisian families beginning their vacation pressed past me on the platform, I imagined for one simultaneously awful and delightful moment that the entire town reeked with the unmistakable smell of warm egg whites and sugar.
I had almost expected it to, because Montelimar is the nougat capital of the world. One of the little towns that speckle the triangle formed by Provence, the Rhone Valley and the Languedoc, Montelimar is 650 kilometers southeast of Paris, about three hours by the TGV ( Train a Grande Vitesse ). The town is surrounded by vineyards, which in early spring are gnarled little stubs sprouting fresh pale leaves; and fields of lavender grown for cosmetics and herbes de Provence, orderly rows of silvery green tufts which by summer turn a blaze of purple.
I had known nougat for years as a candy you could buy at grocery stores in Paris and regularly beseeched anyone I knew traveling to France, no matter how remote our acquaintance, to bring me back a bag or two.
I was now on the brink of a sticky five-day nougat binge. The region had plenty to offer in the way of dietary balance: soupe au pistou , ratatouille, fruity black olive tapenade, garlicky anchoiade , fresh sheep and goats milk cheeses of every imaginable description, the meaty reds and refreshing white wines of the Cotes du Rhone. Nevertheless I had a feeling that this trip was going to make me sick.
If you’re not familiar with nougat, forget the fluffy center of a Milky Way bar. Nougat de Montelimar is a dense white candy made of egg whites, sugar and honey, studded with toasted almonds and pistachios.
In composition it’s not all that different from a marshmallow, and in fact it has some attributes in common with the hard edges of a perfectly stale Jet Puff, although it lacks the marshmallow’s slippery, gelatinous quality. There are two standard varieties of nougat: soft nougat ( tendre ), which is chewy but substantial, and hard nougat ( dur ), which is initially crunchy but dissolves grudgingly as you chew.
There are many variations on the two basic types, including a less common and harder caramel-colored variety called nougatine. You can find nougat flavored with coffee, lavender flowers or chunks of candied orange peel and in all the colors and flavors of a box of Froot Loops. A spreadable version called creme de nougat has the slightly malted taste of processed milk and can be used to fill tarts and Breton-style buckwheat crepes or eaten straight from the jar with a spoon. You can buy nougat in tins, in bags of bite-size squares and in chocolate-covered bars that resemble Three Musketeers (to about the degree that a rum baba resembles a Twinkie).
Made in Provence since the end of the 17th century, when almond trees were introduced to Southern France, nougat as we know it replaced a similar walnut confection as the local delicacy. The first commercial nougat factory in Montelimar opened in 1770, and a few of the town’s existing factories have been in operation since the end of the 19th century. The 15 nougat factories in Montelimar today produce a combined total of 3,000 tons of nougat a year, which is exported all over the world, although the American market has proved particularly hard to penetrate.
For visitors to Montelimar who are truly serious about nougat, an interactive map on the wall outside the tourist office plots out all of the nougat factories in town, with red bulbs that light up to show the most direct route to each. Inside, I bought a map that denotes the regions of France by the sweets they’re known for--a handy guide for the candy pilgrim looking to plan a vacation around licorice or chocolate-covered cherries. I also bought a book called “Le Nougat de Montelimar” (La Mirandole, 1993) by Jean Durand, a nougat historian prone to poetic outbursts on the fecundity and naughtiness of the almond tree and the imperiousness of the honey bee.
According to Durand, the earliest mention of nougat in connection with Montelimar appears in a strange tale, which I don’t doubt is rendered even more strange by my inexpert translation, involving a Crusader, a crocodile and a medieval candy cook-off for the hand of a beautiful maiden.
In 1097 Montelimar was ruled by the red-bearded nobleman Adhemar le Rouge. After earning a glorious reputation in the Crusades, the lord returned to his hometown, bringing with him Mohammed, an Arab cook well versed in Oriental sweets, and a crocodile.
Lord Adhemar desired that Mohammed should marry his wife’s comely goddaughter Yolande, but his wife, Lady Gertrude, insisted that their other cook, Jehan Morin, was a better suitor. Whether it was Mohammed’s exotic origins or his skills as a confectioner that Lady Gertrude objected to is not clear, but to prove her point she asked both cooks to make nougat.
The two nougats were as different as the cooks who made them. Mohammed’s soft and sticky nougat was deemed vulgar by Lady Gertrude. Her husband said that Jehan’s crunchy nougat was barely fit to break his teeth on. Unable to reach a consensus, they agreed that the people of Montelimar should decide which nougat they preferred, and the hand of the unlucky Yolande would go to whichever cook had made it.
The two hopeful bridegrooms worked all night, and the castle was decorated for a celebration. But just as the tasting began, out crawled the crocodile, attracted by the smell of the candy. He quickly devoured the hard nougat, but upon eating the softer candy, his enormous jaws became stuck together so tightly that he could not open his mouth.
Lady Gertrude triumphantly proclaimed Jehan’s nougat the true nougat. (“Not even a crocodile will swallow the soft nougat!” she said.) The end of the story sees Yolande married to Jehan, Mohammed exiled to the mountains to live as a hermit and the crocodile seized by the emboldened townspeople and thrown into the Rhone.
Lord Adhemar presumably spent the rest of his reign under his wife’s sticky, imperious thumb, but he might have felt vindicated to know that while connoisseurs and nougatiers prefer hard nougat, the soft nougat is far more popular commercially.
Au Rucher de Provence is owned by Pierre Bonnieu, a handsome nougatier with a lean, rumpled appearance that suggests a passion for producing small batches of something by hand. The nougat factory is about the same size as the small retail shop in front of it, and Pierre runs both with the help of his wife and his father. They produce 100 kilos of nougat a day, unless it’s raining, when the humidity prevents the nougat from hardening properly and causes it to gum up the works of his 50-year-old wrapping machine.
The process of making nougat involves whipping egg whites and honey together over a hot water bath and then pouring in sugar that has been cooked separately in a copper kettle to 250 degrees for soft nougat and 300 degrees for hard. The mixture is stirred for four hours over hot water, at which point Provencal almonds and Sicilian pistachios are added.
The sticky mass is quickly shoveled into trays lined with a thin, edible paper called pain azyme , or unleavened bread, which is similar to the material that comprises Holy Communion wafers. A heavy metal rolling pin is used to flatten the nougat while it is still warm, before it hardens into a solid, intractable chunk. After the nougat is completely cool, Bonnieu uses a ruler and a circular saw to cut it into its intended dimensions.
On the other side of town, Nougat Gerbe d’ Or is at the other end of the spectrum from Au Rucher de Provence, in terms of volume. Although Gerbe d’Or also maintains a small, artisan nougat factory close to the center of town, its new, fully automated factory produces three tons of nougat a day, rain or shine--a little more than a third of the town’s entire output.
Visitors are invited to climb stairs to a second level occupied by a NASA-looking command center full of computer terminals, a display of antique machines that look like the ones in use at Au Rucher de Provence, and a catwalk from which to observe the action on the floor below, where a sealed pressure cooker can produce a batch of nougat in 20 minutes.
At the end of my spree I couldn’t help but conclude that most palates wouldn’t notice a huge difference between the artisan nougat produced in small batches and the mass-produced candy, other than a sense that the former is meant to be slowly savored. The almonds taste a little more toasted, and the candy’s sweetness has more dimension.
But I’m also partial to the slightly airier nougat made in big factories, probably because of all those bags of grocery store nougat from Paris. Soft and uncomplicated can be very desirable qualities in a candy, particularly when you’re eating a lot of it.