While stranded in Montélimar, I decided to search out the town’s famous artisanal treat: nougat. I have had something called nougat before (the kind that is mass produced and comes in pink and white flavours), but real nougat is really something else. The soft and puffy texture is punctuated with nutty crunches of almonds and pistachios, the mild honey sweetness pleasing without being sickly. Montélimar nougat is something a little special, and it’s all about the almonds.
The almond or amande (Prunus dulcis) was brought to France from Greece through the port of Marseille in the late 17th century by Olivier de Serres*, and thrived in the Mediterranean climate of Provence. The first nougat was produced in the late 17th century when de Serres’ amandiers first began to produce fruit (the almond is not a true nut but a type of fruit called a drupe). The recipe was based on a product of Greek origin called ‘nux gatum‘ or ‘nougo‘ which was popular in the countries of the Langue d’Oc at the time, with almonds replacing the native walnuts of the older product. Nougat de Montélimar is prepared by mixing honey (at least 25% of which must be produced in the Ardèche), with almonds (30% of the total content, or alternatively 28% almonds and 2% pistachios), with stiff egg whites and vanilla. It is then cooked in moulds which are traditionally lined with sheets of unleavened bread, before being cut into blocks. You can find all kinds of flavours besides the traditional honey and almond, but all must adhere to the same basic recipe. Additions include locally sourced produce such as figs, blackberries, lavender, and apricots.
Nougat de Montélimar began its rise to fame in France when Louis, Duke of Burgundy, and Charles, Duke of Berry, passed through the town on a return trip from Spain and were offered nougat as a gift, the gifting of nougat to visitors later becoming a tradition of the town. International recognition came in the early 20th century when the Mayor of Montélimar, Émile Loubet, began a campaign to promote his town’s product to French and foreign politicians, and an IGP label was finally awarded in 2003.
*Olivier de Serres was a soil scientist and agronomist from the Ardèche, who wrote the first French agricultural text book Théâtre d’Agriculture (1600), in which he advocated crop rotation. He also recommended ‘sharecropping’, a practise where viticulturists grow 5-6 varieties of grape in their vineyards to reduce the risk of crop failure, and proposed that the risk should be shared by landowners and tenants. He also brought home the almond, which has since become an iconic Provençal product.