When strolling down the avenue which leads up to Valence Train Station in the Drôme, Southern France, I happened upon one of France’s best known bakeries – Maison Nivon, established in 1856 – and peered through their window at the pastry delights therein. A rather smart pastry of a soldier caught my eye so inside I went to find out more. This wonderful little bakery under the toque of Denis Maurin is well-known for local specialities such as the brioche-like pogne and Le Suisse, as this little figure is called.
Le Suisse is fashioned like a Swiss papal guard and it hails back to Pope Pius VI and his bodyguard. Pope Pius VI had the misfortune to be head of the Catholic Church during the turmoil of the French Revolution and its aftermath with Napoleon I. Pope Pius VI rejected the calls of France to have their priests controlled by France rather than the Vatican and protested the guillotining of Louis XVI. When Napoleon attacked Rome in 1798, the French took control and when the Pope refused to submit to the conquerors, he was taken prisoner.
Elderly and frail, he was moved throughout Europe, ending up in Valence on 14th July 1799. He died six weeks later and his body was embalmed and buried, without ceremony in Valence. His body was finally repatriated back to the Vatican however his heart remained in the cathedral in Valence. He is remembered in this pastry tribute of his Swiss bodyguard, which is flavoured with orange and decorated with raisons, and is traditionally eaten during the Easter celebrations and on Palm Sunday. It’s rather more-ish, you have been warned.
The pogne by the way is thought to have been invented in the middle ages and by the 19th century, it became the Easter-time speciality to celebrate the end of Lent. Now more widely available, it’s a brioche, once again flavoured with orange blossom water, which can be eaten plain or with delicious fillings. There’s even a museum dedicated to the pogne – in Romans/Bourg-de-Péage. Owned by the Pascalis family for generations, they are known to bake the best pogne in the country with a traditional recipe handed down through the generations from father to son. Their premises have welcomed more that 50,000 visitors to their doors since 2004.
They also hold the record for baking the largest pogne in history, weighing in at some 134,500 kg in April 2013 – there’s an enormous model of it outside the shop! Sadly, the museum was closed when we zoomed through town – a treat for another time – but you can see how big that pogne must have been!
Contributor & photographer: Sue Lowry
Our trip was sponsored by La Drôme Tourisme – part of Visit Southern France together with Voyages-sncf.com – both of which are clients of Magellan PR. They can be found tweeting at @LaDromeTourisme and @Voyagessncf_UK respectively.
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