Dragées may well have originated during the Golden Age of ancient Greece and Rome. However, proof of their consumption has not been established until the 13th century: "only" 800 years for a delicious confection to leave its mark in French history and culture...
Dragées, as we know them today, mostly refers to a sugar coated almond. But throughout the Middle Ages, the word dragées described all sugar covered fruits and also to the coriander, aniseeds and ginger pieces served with almonds and pistachios. It was also common to mix the dragées with the "épices de chambre" which included sugared hazelnuts, lemons, candied fruits and dried preserves. These would be served in the privacy of one's bedroom, hence the name. During the Renaissance, they lent their name to the "drageoir": it would be passed around the dinner table and noble men would offer dragées from this "bonbonnière" to welcome their guests in their château, as a symbol of their gracious hospitality.
Conversely, dragées were offered by the people to the higher clergy, as well as to the King. Twelve boxes were given to King Henry III upon his coronation in 1574. King Henry IV received 25 boxes in 1603. A legendary tale mentions that in 1792, after the King of Prussia had conquered their city, the "Maidens of Verdun" gave him a small chest filled with dragées, which was a symbol of peace and allegiance, as well as a way to honor the mighty King. And in 1806, Napoléon marched under three triumphal arches embellished with dragées
In the old days, it was not unusual for magistrates to accept dragées as a token of recognition for the favors granted to the petitioners. Bribery? Certainement pas! Merely a way to say "thank you for your services"… When President Georges Pompidou visited Lorraine, he accepted only one symbolic pound of dragées: maybe he did not want to be accused of impropriety? Nevertheless, the gift of dragées remains a way to pay homage to those deserving it, which explains the custom of offering a bouquet of dragées to the recipients of a decoration.
But if dragées were the privilege of powerful leaders and worthy medal bearers, how could we explain that they may just be the best-known confection if France, way ahead of calissons, nougat or marrons glacés? In no other country but France are dragées so closely associated with the landmarks of a person's life. They represent love, luck and happiness, and play an important role in many celebrations. The first ones are the birth and christening of a child. The symbolic meaning of a baptism has been transferred to many other events, such as the mounting of a bell in its bellfry, the launching of a ship, the introduction of a new product, or the start of a partnership. The first communion marks the crossing from childhood to adolescence. Dragées are also there to underline the sharing of friendship and love and are rarely absent from weddings. The offering of a beautiful basket filled with dragées to the bride and groom is to be interpreted as a wish for happiness. If the newlyweds offer dragées to their guests, it is to thank them for the wedding gifts they have received. Seven to ten dragées, wrapped in a tulle circle tied with a ribbon, are usually given to the guests as souvenirs of the big day. Other types of containers, from simple cardboard "cornets" (cones) to dainty porcelain boxes, can also be used.
Although the manufacturing process is similar, dragées have very little in common with the Jordan almonds that are widely available in the USA: a French dragée is smooth as porcelain, the almond meats are not bitter, the fine sugar coating gently cracks under the teeth (no jawbreaker, here). The whole idea is for the fruitiness of the nut and the sweetness of the sugar to mingle in the mouth. A good dragée is the result of several elements: a strict selection of the ingredients (specific types of almonds, pure cane sugar, real bean vanilla) combined with expertise in production. In French dragées, most of the almonds come from around the Mediterranean: "Longuettes" from Catalonia are chosen for their elegant shape, "Planetas" from Alicante for their rich flavor, "Avolas" from Sicily (the rarest of them all) for their refined fruitiness. The number of dragées per pound will vary with the variety and the size but you can expect to get about 120 dragées Longuettes per pound.