The old recipes are often the best. You know the kind – Mary Berry’s fail-safe Victoria Sponge, Delia’s classic Christmas Lunch, and Anis de Flavigny, the sugary French delicacy that was devised over a thousand years ago by Benedictine monks, and that has continued to be made in the same way ever since…
At first glance, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain is pretty but unassuming – a small village which rises sleepily above the velvety green fields and wooded slopes of central Burgundy. Public transport hasn’t yet made its way here, and it’s not unusual to find yourself alone among the winding medieval streets and panoramic ramparts. You’d certainly never guess that Julius Caesar once camped nearby, or that just a few short years ago Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche fell in love amid the ancient alleyways (much of the film Chocolat was shot here).
Roman generals and Hollywood stars may come and go, but Flavigny’s other claim to fame endures. We can’t be sure exactly when it all started, but records confirm that the village’s Benedictine monks were producing anise-flavoured, sugar-coated bonbons from within the confines of Abbaye Saint-Pierre at least as early as 719, with a unified recipe emerging in 1591.
The site of the Abbey is older still, as was discovered in 1956 when the American archaeologist Fred Guggenheim visited Flavigny. Having researched the area, Guggenheim led a programme of excavations in the grounds of the abbey and succeeded in uncovering a Carolingian chapel which is thought to date back over 1,200 years – and whose founding ceremony is said to have been attended by the great Emperor Charlemagne himself.
But back to the sweets. The centuries ticked over and the monks of Flavigny continued to produce their bonbons in much the same manner, until the French Revolution of 1789, that is, when many of the monastic buildings were destroyed and the number of monks vastly reduced. The production promptly passed into secular hands, with as many as eight different anis producers active in Flavigny by 1814. Eventually, these merged into one sole company, which was acquired by the current owners – the Troubat family – in 1923. And so began the next chapter in the history of la plus vieille marque de France (‘France’s oldest brand’)…
The production process has been refined over the years, of course, but the Troubat family follow essentially the same recipe today that the Benedictine monks were using back in the 16th century, and they continue to make the tiny sweets in Flavigny’s ancient abbey. The packaging is wonderfully vintage in style – the best-known design features a pretty young shepherdess and her shepherd beau lovingly sharing a handful of anis; the aniseed is still sourced locally; and the ten different flavours are all naturally occurring, and range from orange blossom to rose.
Yet though the recipe, packaging and ingredients may be traditional, the scale of the operation is anything but: some 220 million anis leave Flavigny each year, and are exported to 45 countries around the world – remarquable!