Anyone who knows me, will tell you I have a sweet tooth, the fridge always has a few little treats in it, there’s inevitably a great supply of chocolate in the house and of course, ice creams in the freezer. I have been known in the family, as ‘the fridge monster’, as nibbles and chunks regularly disappear from anything on the shelves, as if there is a little gremlin, hiding behind the healthy stuff, intent on keeping its sugar-levels up!
Of course, I know that apples and other fruits are a much better option, but I just can’t help myself. I can sniff out sweets, even if they are hidden away, so you can imagine, when a friend asked if I wanted to join her on a visit the Silvain Nougat Factory in nearby Saint Didier, with the local Tourist Board, that I leapt at the chance.
I’ve always been fascinated by sweet factories, having been brought up on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and even the wonderful Scrumptious Sweets Factory in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In my imagination they are places of wonder, transforming basic ingredients into magical things, and even though no Oompa Loompas or rivers of chocolate are to be seen in Saint Didier, it certainly lived up to expectations.
Nougats Silvain is a family-owned company, that like so many businesses here, started as a small idea, born from the need to diversify, as the traditional way of farming was being increasingly affected by the extended, globalised market. Over the last 30 years, it has since grown into something that now supports local agriculture and promotes provençal culture, with a real emphasis on maintaining the traditional ways of life, that make this little corner of France such a very special and much-loved place to be.
We all love this area for its landscape, the almond and cherry orchards, heavy with blossom in the spring….
The promise of the juicy fruits warmed by the summer sun….
And of course the spectacular sight and scent of the lavender fields that are synonymous with Provence…
But it is very easy to forget that these are only here because they are farmed, they’re not just planted for their look, or to attract tourists, they are critical for many families’ livelihoods, and without a market for the produce then the farms would fail. They may be much prettier than expansive fields of wheat or barley, but they are in effect the same thing, an agricultural product, that supports the farmer and their family, and without them, this would be a very different place indeed.
We heard, that in the early days of the company, it was set up, with the most basic of equipment in a barn on the family farm, and over the years has grown into a well-respected artisan producer, that now has a purpose-built home, in the heart of the pretty village of Saint Didier, near Venasque, that houses the factory, a delightful shop and also a rather excellent little tea-room.
What is so nice is that this isn’t a sprawling modern factory, in fact the production area, where the magical transformation of the ingredients takes place is like a very large kitchen, with plenty of space for all the different parts of the process, but no huge machines, with everything (apart from the final wrapping) still being done by hand.
Our visit started with a video presentation about the company, in a room surrounded by some of the equipment that has been used over the years. Among the copper pans and moulds, were two old electric irons, that were clamped upside-down to a bench, which had been used to seal the plastic wrappings when the company first started, a lovely throwback to the basic processes they had in place and the simple structure they had back then, when they took a step into a very new and different business.
We learned that the family had been local ‘peasant farmers’ working the land for 6 generations with vineyards, extensive almond orchards and a number of beehives for honey, then in the mid 1980s there was a fundamental shift in farming, and they (along with other producers) were told there was no market for their grapes, which had to be destroyed, putting their way of life at risk, forcing them to look at what other alternatives may be open to them.
Their great-grandmother had always made Nougat, a traditional local sweet, more commonly linked with Montelimar a short distance up the Autoroute Du Soleil towards Lyon. It’s a wonderfully sugary delight, which contains two basic ingredients, almonds and honey, both of which the family produced on their own land. Two particular types of Nougat (crunchy black, and soft white) are always in high demand in Provence at Christmas, for the traditional Christmas Eve tradition of the 13 desserts, so the family invested in the basic equipment that would be needed to produce their own sweets, inspired by the long-held family recipe and started to sell them at the local Christmas markets.
Using their own almonds and honey, their sweets were filled with the scents and flavours of Provence, the pale pink almond blossoms of early spring forming the nuts that give the nougat its wonderful crunch…..
And the vibrant purple lavender fields of the summer providing the perfect feeding-grounds for bees, that spend their days dapping from flower to flower, taking their very special, and unique flavour back to their hives and into the honey that gets mixed with the almonds and fruit to make the sweets….
The business started to grow, with locals and tourists alike, starting to hunt out their products, which were still being produced in the barn at the family farm. The traditional methods were still at the heart of the business with the hectares of almonds being harvested by hand, with ladders, sticks and nets, until the early 2000s, when the mechanised tree-shaker, nicknamed the ‘Batmobile’ took over the process.
The Silvain family nougats became well-established and quickly gained a good reputation for quality, whilst their relatively small-scale production enabled them to concentrate on developing the business as part of the community, supporting other local farmers who became suppliers. They are classed as an ‘Enterprise Du Patrimoine Vivant’, a select label identifying it as a business that brings together traditions and innovation, with a passion for its product that firmly links it both to the heritage of the area and its future prosperity.
To be honest, I loved this approach and whilst we were shown around, the passion was evident. This isn’t a big multi-national business focused on turnover and margins, but a small family enterprise, as firmly rooted in the area as their almond trees and lavender plants. They have a real commitment to supporting local businesses, from providing supply contracts, that give much-needed security to young farmers who are establishing themselves in the area, to giving an outlet for the local potter, whose work they sell in the shop. Also they have built a little woodland trail, a short distance from the shop, providing a space for families to visit and explore, with a picnic spot and information on the nature of the area, encouraging learning as part of their commitment to the local environment
They explained that they have 30 hectares of almond trees, which are grazed by local flocks of sheep that move through the area each year, both supporting the shepherds, and at the same time reducing their own carbon footprint. They also have 400 hives, which are moved to the expansive lavender fields of the Valensole Plateau in the summer, but have access to 2000 in total with their partners across the area, from the chestnut woodlands of the Ardeche to the acacia trees of the Drome. In total, they produce 30 tonnes of nougat each year, using 10 tonnes of almonds and 20 tonnes of honey (interestingly this is the amount produced in a single week in Montelimar).
Although the business started with traditional ‘Nougat Blanc’ & ‘Nougat Noir’ , it has expanded into other types of nougat, adding new flavours to the range, including ‘Le Gargantua’, a white nougat with pistachios, apricots and figs and the delightful ‘La Coquette’ with red fruits including strawberries, cranberries and cherries. There is a flavour for just about every possible taste, but the one flavour that sits above everything is the lingering sweetness of lavender honey. Whereas a lot of nougats have added sugars, these don’t and the sweetness and flavour is simply from the golden liquid extracted from the honeycombs each year.
We had a chance to watch the process in the well-established kitchens, seeing the huge slabs of white nougat cut with a circular saw, before being packaged for sale. We also found out more about the process used to create the diamond-shaped almond and melon flavoured Calissons, another local delight that is seen across this corner of Provence.
We spent a fascinating 45 minutes, learning about this innovative forward-thinking business, which was then topped off perfectly with a tasting session, when we had a chance to try a selection of the products, from the crunchy dark ‘Le Patriarche’ to the subtle lavender-scented ‘La Delicate’. Each flavour was unique and delicious, subtly different to the next.
If I’m honest, I did try to make nougat myself once, as it’s one of Andy’s favourite things, but it was a far cry from these soft squares that almost melt in your mouth. The nougat I made turned out like rock, that then turned into glue in the mouth. I did give a square to a lovely old neighbour who called it ‘nuggit’, and I think she may still be eating it, as it immediately welded her teeth together, before pulled her dentures around in her mouth to the point that she couldn’t speak, as she wandered off down the road …. I still feel guilty to this day and in future will happily leave it to the professionals…
It was the perfect way to spend an afternoon, and of course we didn’t leave without buying a few little take-home treats either, with a fantastic selection of nougats and other products on offer in the shop.
I am already trying to think about cycle routes that will take us past the shop, as not only is it the perfect place to stop for a coffee break on a ride, but they have recently added protein, energy bars ‘L’Endurante’ to their range, so it would be the ideal place to stock up on cycling snacks too.
The shop and tea room are open throughout the year and tours take place on a regular basis, you can find out more information about opening hours and tour times Here
And I can only say that it is worth popping in if you are nearby, you really won’t regret it …. especially if you have a rather sweet tooth.