Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Dragee: then and now

What confection sounds more glamorous than the French dragee (dra-jay)? I envision myself lounging on a divan, with a kir royale in one hand and a bundle of the classic sugar coated almonds in the other. Though dragees have been popular in Europe since the Middle Ages, we are finding new interpretations of them right here in San Francisco - beginning with Recchiuti's collection of chocolate dragees in peanut butter, cherry, almond and hazelnut.

The term "dragee" comes from the French verb "drague," meaning to dredge. After extravagant medieval banquets, the dragee (originally simply a spiced lump of sugar) was offered to aid in digestion and freshen the breath. In the traditional version, the roasted almond center is dredged in sugar, layer after layer, until the final shell is polished smooth. Just as Aix-en-Provence is known for their calissons, the French city of Verdun would lie in obscurity if not for the dragee. Verdun (in the Lorraine region of Eastern France) has been making dragees since the 13th century.

If you've ever flipped through the sumptuous photos in Martha Stewart Weddings, you've seen bundles of pastel colored dragees presented as wedding favors. Because the almond is technically a seed, it has long been associated with fertility. And so dragees have come to symbolize fertility, prosperity and good luck - what we all wish for the bride and groom. It's even been said that the contrast of the sweet shell and the bitter nut illustrate the "for better or worse" of married life.

Dragees are not without political controversy, especially here in California. Public health advocates have questioned the advisability of downing the metallic dragees popular in cake and cookie decorating. The metals used may contain mercury, and even if they didn't, I'd worry about losing a tooth! Since 2003, metallic dragees have been banned for sale in California - but easily available online. This brings me to the superiority of chocolate dragees...

If you live in the Bay Area and are looking to add dragees to your Easter table, I have some suggestions. For the classic style, head straight to Richart or Teuscher. Both spots, located on the same Sutter Street Union Square block, are favorites on our Chocolate Tours. But for something a little more inventive, visit Recchiuti in the Ferry Building. My favorite are the slightly crunchy "Peanut Butter Pearls" (you won't find these in Europe) and the "Cherries Two Ways" which are positively addictive. If you can't decide, his "Asphalt Jungle" is a combo pack. One of my favorite online options for dragees is the Cocoa Room. With flavors like "amaretto tiramisu" and "pumpkin spice," these trendy confections can double as artwork when displayed in glass jars.

What is your favorite place for a dragee fix? Let us know here, or at info@gourmetwalks.com.

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