A few weeks ago I made a batch of pretty little cupcakes for my mom and her friends. I decided to use a soft pink buttercream frosting topped with dragees (or as I call them, those silver ball things). Upon searching the entire Columbus Ohio metropolitan area I was only able to find these little evasive decorations at two specialty cake stores! I was honestly surprised. I remember my grandmother decorating cookies with these little beauties. They have been featured in old cookbooks as well as by Martha Stewart not that long ago! I even remember when grocery stores regularly stocked their shelves with them. Their lack of location peaked my interest. I set out to learn more about these mystical orbs and to find a cause for their disappearance.
Let me give you a brief history of the confectionary topping called dragee (pronouced dra-zhay). Some believe that the first dragee was made almost 2,000 years ago by a Roman baker named Julius Dragatus. His early version was simply almonds dipped in honey (sounds delicious!). Fast forward a few hundred years to a town in France called Verdun, where the local druggist was trying to find a way to preserve his almond crop. He devised a plan to coat almonds in a cooked sugar and honey mix.
Many legends arose around dragees. For instance, some believed that these little delights should be served after a meal to promote digestion and rid bad breath. Some also believed they prevented sterility! Soon, people began giving them to family and friends for good luck at events such as weddings and baptisms. Verdun still carries the reputation of the almond dragee to this day.
Now, at some point in time, we began producing small sugar balls coated in silver, gold and copper (yes, real silver, gold and copper). The silver dragees are what has always been so popular on wedding cakes and holiday cookies. However, I have had a difficult time finding any information regarding when this dragee transformation really took place or why. So if anyone knows anything I don’t or I can’t find out in cyber space, please let me know!
The Food and Drug administration has declared that them to be inedible. It is believed that at some point in time, these delights contained mercury in them. Of course, now they do not but the FDA still says they are inedible. That is not the same story told in many other countries though. For instance, the United Kingdom still considers them to be a food item. After researching and reading all of these things I thought, “OK, but still what’s the big deal? Why do I have to turn every stone in central Ohio to find one precious dragee?” My research led me to surprising findings.
In as early as 1990, a California lawyer set out on a mission to rid California shelves of the dastardly dragee. According to an article I found from SFGate.com (see link below), he got McCormick to remove them completely from all shelves. He filed a lawsuit that alleged the little dragee was toxic (even though there is no record of anyone becoming sick or dying from eating dragees). He claims that the silver can build up in the body causing many health defects over time. If you buy or sell dragees in the state of California, and are caught, you could find yourself in court! Wow! So is that why they are disappearing from shelves across the country as well? I would think so. I believe the disappearance is the result of political pressure in California. How bizarre right? I couldn’t believe this! You would have to eat an extremely large number of them in order to have health issues. In the article link below there is a quote from a woman with the California Department of Health Services. She says, “We are not aware of any health problems associated with this product. Levels of the metal are extremely low — you’d have to consume massive quantities. We don’t know how much.” Duh! Enough said! Not to mention all of the other toxic things that are put in our food product that the FDA approves such as BPA! Canada is the first country to declare BPA as a toxin. But that’s a whole different post!
So if you are ever in need of the pretty little dragee, I suggest ordering them online (unless you are in California because merchants won’t ship to Cali zip codes) OR find a specialty cake store that sells them. You unfortunately won’t find the metal coated dragees at any craft store. We constantly encounter Michaels crafts customers on the hunt for these little guys.