Friday, June 3, 2011

In praise of chestnuts

Chestnuts speak vividly to me of late autumn and winter childhood visits to France. I remember one beautiful golden autumn afternoon in the Basque country when we'd been on an interesting outing to Edmond Rostand's country house—the creator of the famous play on Cyrano de Bergerac is one of my father's favourite authors, and we children grew up listening to him reciting the famous speeches from Cyrano—and we stopped along the road beside a huge chestnut tree that had been dropping its fruit all over the verge. We filled all kinds of containers with hundreds of them and back home spent ages popping them out of the spiky first layer of armour which made them look like green sea-urchins, and then having to score a cut in each glossy second layer so they could be roast over the fire or else boiled up for puree and other uses. I loved the taste of them, but it seemed to me amazing that people had learned how to eat them, they had so many layers of protection: the green spikes, the glossy, hard second layer, the flaky skin underneath that had to be rubbed off before you could at last properly use the fleshy nut in the centre.
In winter, roast-chestnut street stalls were—and still are!-- a common sight in French cities. The seller has a little portable brazier, a whole heap of roasted chestnuts ready to sell in paper cornets, and a whole heap more roasting. Every French kid has pestered their parents for one of those paper cornets, and walked along in seventh heaven with the cornet nestled warmly in a gloved hand, the other one deftly extracting the nuts, peeling the crackling armour off them and popping them in your mouth. Fantastic! And at Christmas time in France, chestnuts, roast and in puree, often have pride of place on the table, with the traditional Christmas log made of a mixture of sweetened chestnut puree and melted chocolate shaped into a log and decorated with candied flowers or fruit or cream. Chestnuts are also used in roast-poultry stuffings and egg dishes and all sorts of things and the flour mixed in with other kinds of flours in cakes. In summer, preserved chestnuts reappear in such traditional dishes such as Mont-Blanc, which uses sweetened chestnut puree—often coming out of the distinctive Clement Faugier green and white and brown tins that you find everywhere in France and can easily find in Australian cities too, in places like David Jones Food Hall or other gourmet groceries—combined with whipped cream to make a delicious and classically simple cold dessert. And of course there are the 'marrons glaces' , the exquisite candied whole chestnuts which are considered to be amongst the most quintessential of all such French sweets, and because they take so long to make, are expensive enough to be considered as true luxuries.
We've tried growing a chestnut tree here but to no avail. And we rarely have seen them in the shops. I do bring back tins of Clement Faugier chestnut puree from France from time to time or even from DJ's, but these are few and far between. So the other day when I did see chestnuts for sale in Sydney, a wave of longing for some of the dishes of my childhood swept over me, and I bought a fair few.
Back home, we tried first to roast them—disaster! As we'd forgotten to scare the skins, the hot chestnuts went off like exploding rockets, fireworking shattered chestnut pieces all over the room. When we'd recovered from the fright and the laughing, we decided discretion was the better part of valour and instead of wasting our hard-sought chestnuts by turning them into mini-bombs, we'd beat Monsieur Faugier at his own game and make our own puree.
Well, it worked, thanks to trusty Ginette Mathiot and her recipe for this classic basic in i Know How to Cook—but what a palaver! First of all we had to score each nut with a cross, them boil them for 10 minutes in water, then remove the hard glossy skin, then boil them again for another 10 minutes, remove the flaky inner skin, then simmer the nut flesh again, in milk with a little sugar this time, for 20 minutes. Then the milky nuts had to be mashed up till you got a smooth paste, a little vanilla essence added and a little more sugar, and then left to cool. After that, I mixed the puree with melted chocolate and made a Maytime log whose ressemblance to a Christmas log was not in the least coincidental. And it was delicious, smooth and rich, with that distinctive chestnut taste mingled with the lusciousness of the chocolate. But though it was definitely worthwhile having a go, for sheer curiosity's sake, it took a very long time to get to the final product—and I don't think I'll be challenging Monsieur Faugier's supremacy any time soon!

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