Every face tells a story

Have you ever walked down an empty street and felt that you were being watched?  Even though there were no curtains twitching nor anyone at the windows?  Disconcerting, until you discover a face, somewhere high up on a building – a face that may have been gazing out for decades or centuries!  Take a walk around the small towns in Southern France, and you’ll be able to find those faces – sometimes well hidden, sometimes very obvious!

Below is a face above a door in Pezenas.

Faces and facades share the same etymological origin.  The facade being the ‘face’ of a building, it projects political, symbolic and social values, revealing all kinds of information about its owner.  A lot of the ornate facades in this post date from the 19th century, when you could flaunt it if you had it and more was definitely better!!

The pictures below are of a building in Castelnaudary – a former department store dating from the 1870s.  There are many faces on that facade!

The face below is high up on a wall in a narrow street in Beziers – it’s almost ghost like!

Atlantes always look somewhat weary and/or bored – I guess I would too, if I had to carry all that weight! 🙂

There are also plenty of animals to be found on facades.  Here is a pair of fearsome hounds guarding a gate:

A ram:

A lion:

More lions:

Here’s a pair of Caryatids, looking vaguely bored…

Someone’s looking out of a window of this tower in Narbonne.  I wonder what the story behind that window is!

Hermes or Mercury?

More caryatids – these adorn a renaissance mansion in Narbonne.

Two faces carved by the Beziers sculptor Injalbert

Green men also seem to figure in some places:

This finely sculpted face was actually on a door knocker and measured only about 3cm across!

I leave you with this beautiful art nouveau sculpture from a building in Beziers.  Raise your eyes next time you go for a walk – you’ll never know what you may find!!

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The great big mimosa party …

The Fete du Mimosa in Roquebrun takes place this coming Sunday, February 10, 2019.  The weather forecast looks good, so perhaps I’ll see you there?? 🙂


… takes place each year on the second Sunday in February in the village of Roquebrun, in Languedoc.  Why, I hear you ask?  Well, Roquebrun, also known as Le Petit Nice because of its microclimate, is a perfect place for growing mimosa, and at that time of year the trees are in full bloom in Roquebrun and nearby.

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The Fete du Mimosa is now in its 22nd year and the main event is the parade of the decorated floats in the afternoon.  This year’s theme was “comic strip heroes” and we saw Tintin, the Smurfs, Becassine, Marsupilami, Lucky Luke, Boule et Bill, Bob the sponge, Titeuf and the Simpsons, all made by the local association Les Amis du Moulin and decorated with over 100,000 colourful paper flowers over the course of the winter.  More about the procession later, first some impressions of mimosa blossom!

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The yellow mimosa bloom seems to be especially pretty against a deep blue sky.  There’s something incredibly generous about a mimosa tree in full bloom, it almost shouts out that spring is only around the corner.  If you arrive for the fete in Roquebrun, you are most likely going to walk across the bridge.  Straight ahead of you you’ll see the mimosa stall, where you can buy your very own bunch of mimosa blossom to take home.  The scent is beautifully delicate and will make your house smell lovely.

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All along the main street are stands selling a variety of local produce and handicrafts, and there’s plenty of street food too!  On the Place de la Rotissoire the organising committee had their own food stall, with a great BBQ to one side!  Those guys were prepared for some serious cooking!

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I found some delicious Bugnes at one stall, strips of dough, deep-fried and dusted with powdered sugar.  Wikipedia has the English version of this as angel wings, but I also give you the French entry, in case you are tempted to make this!  A search on one of the popular search engines will turn up a sleigh of recipes.

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There were also the requisite sausages, along with lots of other food, from frites to pancakes and crepes made with chestnut flour.

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But back to the parade…  I got a sneak preview as some of the floats were driven down the main road (there really is only one in Roquebrun) to the starting point.  And they looked pretty good!

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After some lunch and a walk around the market I was ready to find my spot for the parade.  One of the walking bands entertained the waiting crowds for a little while, before heading off to the assembly point.  And then, after some waiting, there was this almighty bang – it really made me jump.  Apparently the sign that the parade had set off at the other end of the village!!  The master of ceremonies preceded the first tractor and it was Becassine who opened the fun!

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The floats and tractors were by now extravagantly decorated with mimosa bloom, and the floats were full of costumed children throwing confetti at the spectators (and each other!).  The Smurfs and Bill et Boule were next, and following each float was a band.

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Lucky Luke came next, and in my book this float won the prize!  Check out Lucky Luke’s cigarette!  And the horse was having such a great time!  AND the band following were all dressed in mimosa yellow!

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Tintin was next, followed by a brass band in green.

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And finally there was a float with three comic strip heroes:  Bob the sponge, Titeuf, and one of the Simpsons, I think it must have been Bart.

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Next came the Buffatiere and I doubt that you’ll have seen anything like it before.  A group of dancers, dressed in white (night) gowns with white nightcaps on their heads, dance around a wheelbarrow full of flour, with bellows in their hands.  Sounds pretty innocuous, doesn’t it?  Well, the dancers get to have their fun by blowing the flour-filled bellows at each other and the audience, and giving some of the bystanders a floury hug.  (For some history about the Buffatiere I found this website, in French only.)  I took a brief video for your amusement.

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But the party wasn’t over quite yet – there came the Fontaine a Vin, a mobile wine bar kind of thing, sponsored by the Cave Cooperative, and distributing small cups of red wine all along the way, with the ladies all dressed up as Becassine.

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Now, with Roquebrun being a one-street-town, the whole procession went as far as the Cave Cooperative, where it turned round and came back again!  So another chance to wave at the children (one enterprising boy started to throw branches of mimosa from his float at the bystanders, as the confetti had run out :-)), listen to the music and get covered in flour.  Oh yes, and then the wine came by again.

One of the bands consisted entirely of drums, and they were pretty good, so I’m sharing a video with you.

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And then it was over for another year!!

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Guilty pleasures

A recent trip to the UK meant staying overnight in Tain l’Hermitage, a town that is about an hour south of Lyon.  Close by is Crozes Hermitage, well-known for its excellent wines, but for me, the main attraction of the area was the Valrhona chocolate factory!!

I had timed my visit to Tain l’Hermitage so that I would have the afternoon to indulge in visiting the Cite du Chocolat, the interactive chocolate “museum”.

The impressive building sports a huge version of the iconic black chocolate box, which was introduced by Valrhona in the 1970s.

The side of the building also looked as though it had been decorated with over-sized chocolate boxes!!

Inside, it is ALL about chocolate!  And here’s a tip – at the entrance, opposite the cash desk, you’ll find lockers, where you can put your coats and bags.  Use them! It’s a lot more fun to go around the exhibition without having to carry anything!

Various interactive displays allow you to sharpen your senses – and eat chocolate!  🙂
Dulcey is a white chocolate with a caramel flavour, and Jivara is a milk chocolate!  I’m not normally a fan of white chocolate, I find it too sweet and cloying, but I’ve become a fan of Dulcey!!  And Jivara was very delicious too!

One of the exhibits explained the processing of cocoa beans from the arrival at the factory to the finished product.  The videos showed the various stages of production, with comments by Valrhona employees.  At some of the stages there were little tastes of chocolate, including some 100% cocoa chocolate and pure cocoa butter.  The 100% chocolate tasted very bitter but there were all kinds of fruity notes and it was energising in a caffeine way!!  The cocoa butter had no taste at all!  The little oval pieces of chocolate are called feves and are made for the professional market.  Because of their shape they melt readily.  The big blocks are also aimed at the professionals, but there’s nothing stopping you from buying either of these products in the shop at the end of your tour.

At the bottom of the stairs to the first floor (2nd floor US) was the machine in the picture below – a chocolate enrobing machine!!  The machine covers passing bits of “candy” (squares of praline in this case) with melted chocolate.  The big tank below the conveyor belt holds melted chocolate at a temperature of 44.5 degrees centigrade. An ingenious pumping system cools the chocolate to 28 degrees centigrade, before warming it again to 31.5 degrees centigrade, at which point it is used to enrobe. Any excess chocolate runs back into the tank where it is heated once more and so on.  The process of heating, cooling and heating is called tempering, and it results in a finished chocolate that has a nice shine and cracks when bitten into it.

On the first floor were displays of how Valrhona chocolate could be used in various desserts, cakes and Belgian style chocolates.  AND of course there were more chocolates to be tasted.

Another display showed the development of the company, which was founded in 1922.  In the early days, Valrhona chocolate was only sold to professionals.

Old packaging, publicity items and tools were also on display.

At the start of my visit, when I bought the entrance ticket, the cashier asked if I wanted to participate in a half-hour workshop – the theme was praline.  I’m always interested in learning new things, so for an extra Euro I got my ticket for that workshop!

Praline is made from sugar and nuts, usually in equal proportions.  The sugar is either caramelised, with the nuts added when the caramel is a dark amber colour; or sugar and nuts are “cooked” together until the sugar starts to melt.  The two different types of preparation give very different results, but in both cases the sugar/nut mixture has to be ground for several hours, in order to obtain a smooth praline paste – not something that I would want to do at home!  The resulting praline has a 45% fat content (from the nuts).

Depending on the nuts used, even though no chocolate is added, its taste can be similar to that well-known brand of chocolate spread – you know the one I mean!!  I got to taste the different types of praline, but for me they were too rich, even though they were delicious.  I preferred the sugar-coated roasted nuts which I was allowed to taste at the beginning of the workshop.  In order to use praline as a chocolate centre, cocoa butter is added to make the praline firm at room temperature.  A taste of that kind of chocolate was included too, and it was delicious! 🙂

After all that chocolate tasting, my belly was starting to ache – I never thought I would be able to overdose on chocolate, and I blamed it on the praline!! 🙂

Finally it was time to visit the shop!!  I had visited Valrhona a long time ago, before the Cite du Chocolat had opened, so I knew that the shop was an Aladdin’s cave of chocolate and more chocolate!!

Best of all, all the plain chocolates on sale could also be tasted, in case one couldn’t remember what they were like in the first place!! The selection is vast, and I had some difficulties in making my choices!  I bought a 1 kilo bag of Guanaja feves, which contains 70% cocoa – it makes a wonderful chocolate mousse!  And I bought several smaller bags of feves of different types.  You can buy Valrhona chocolate on-line, but one of the nice things of visiting the shop – apart from being able to taste pretty much everything – is that the checkout staff always put some small presents in your bag!! 🙂

After my visit at Valrhona had ended, I went for a little walk along the Rhone – the name of the chocolate factory is an amalgam of Rhone Valley, and the river is close by!

Getting to Tain l’Hermitage is easy – the town is just by the A7 motorway, about an hour’s drive south of Lyon.  From Saint-Chinian the drive takes just three hours.  Tain also has a railway station, and the chocolate factory is only 800m from the station!!

The Cite du Chocolat is open seven days a week, and it is better to visit in the early morning than in the afternoon (fewer people).

I stayed overnight at the hotel Pavillon de l’Ermitage – a very comfortable hotel with spacious rooms, halfway between the railway station and Valrhona.

It’s wine O’clock

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that a number of wineries in the Saint-Chinian area were having an open day on December 8, 2018.  In order to bring you a blog post, I had to go on a research trip! 🙂

My day started at 10:30 in the morning at the Maison des Vins, the showcase for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines.  The Maison des Vins is in part of the former home of Charles Trenet’s parents in Saint-Chinian – if you don’t know the story, you can find my previous posts here and here.

I had come to the Maison des Vins for a tutored tasting of some of the wines which had made the Virtuoses selection of wines from the AOC Saint-Chinian.  There were 11 participants to the session, which was led by Baptiste Poncet from the Maison des Vins and Vivien Roussignol of Domaine des Paissels.  We were led up an amazing and monumental staircase to the tasting room on the first floor.  Here was the room where pretty much every wine in the store below had at one time or other been tasted, to see if it measured up to the strict quality criteria of the AOC Saint-Chinian.  The room was packed with rows of tables.  Several tasting stations were built into each row, with each person having their own small basin and cold water tap!

The Virtuoses competition is specific to the Saint-Chinian wine area.  It was first held in 2014.  The competition is judged by panels of journalists, professionals and personalities in the wine trade, restaurateurs, etc.  Over the years it has been held in different locations (Saint-Chinian, New York, Montreal, London).

The entrance criteria are fairly strict, and winemakers have to enter three different vintages of the same cuvee.  The idea behind that is to show the ageing potential of the wines.  For this year’s selection (2019), 70 winemakers entered their wines, which were tasted by the 25 jury members in New York City.  Before you ask, no, the jury members didn’t have to taste each and every wine!  They were split into groups as were the wines – it would be nigh impossible for all but the most experienced tasters to work their way through over 200 different wines!!

For our little tasting, Baptiste and Vivien had selected the following wines:

Chateau Coujan – Cuvee bois jolie 2017
Domaine de Cambis – Les jardins suspendus 2016
Domaine des Paissels – Les Paissels 2017
Mas Champart – Causse du bousquet 2015
Domaine La Madura – Classic 2015
Domaine Cathala – Cuvee A 2016

Before we got to tasting all those wines, a little surprise had been prepared for us.  If you saw the picture of the tasting stations earlier in this post, you may have noticed three bottles standing next to one of the sinks.  There were four such sets of bottles dotted about the tasting area, each set contained bottles labeled with Syrah, Carignan and Grenache.  Vivien had brought these wines with him.  They had only recently finished their fermentation and had been drawn off the tanks just the day before.  The idea was that we would create our own blended wine with wines made from the three grape varieties that are frequently used for the AOC Saint-Chinian wines!

Four teams were formed, and we were given the requisite tools for blending, namely a measuring jug and an empty bottle for our final blend.  We started by tasting the individual wines.  The Syrah had spent some time in oak barrels and was to add “structure” to the wine, the Grenache was for roundness, and the Carignan was for freshness.  The colour of all three wines was amazing – a deep purple colour verging on black!  This is where my multitasking ended – tasting and photographing do not go together, at least not for me! 🙂

Once we had finished tasting the three different varietal wines, we set about working out a “recipe” for our blend.  We started with 30% Syrah, 60% Grenache and 10% Carignan.  Next we tried 20% Syrah, 50% Grenache and 30% Carignan.  Finally we tried 30% Syrah, 40% Grenache and 30% Carignan.  We tasted each of these blends in comparison to one another, and yes we did keep track of our glasses!!  A sheet of paper had been placed at each station, with number 1 to 6 printed on it!!  We came to the conclusion that our winning blend was the 20-50-30 one and prepared our full bottle according to that recipe.

Each group submitted their bottle, which was then covered with a sleeve, and then we all did a blind tasting of the four different blended wines.  Baptiste had given us a simplified version of the tasting sheets used for the Virtuoses competition.

The wines had to be rated on appearance, i.e. colour and clarity of the wine, intensity and complexity of the “nose”, followed by various criteria of taste: Intensity/concentration/bouquet/complexity, acidity/freshness, tannins/structure, balance/harmony, “length” in the mouth, followed by an overall note.  Each note carried points and, as you can see, I rated the wine named “B” at 13.5 out of 20 points.  I found that exercise to be incredibly difficult.  Tasting all those wines was tough enough, but giving notes was tougher yet.  Added to that was the fact that the wines were very young, and the flavours not yet very developed.

Did “our” blend come out with the highest score??  Nope, it came in last, but in our defence it was the first wine to be tasted, which, as Baptiste said, does nothing for the ranking.  The winning formula was not too dissimilar to ours though: it consisted of 30% Syrah, 50% Grenache and 20% Carignan.

Vivian told us that he prepares about 3 different blends for a cuvee before he arrives at the final “recipe”.  Sometimes, final adjustments are made to the blend just before a wine is bottled.

Being a vigneron is a highly skilled job AND it requires many different skills: growing the grapes, turning them into drinkable wine, blending the wine, and finally selling the wine!  Before this tasting, I had no idea of just how the blending of a wine works – now I know just how much work and skill is involved, and I hope you, also, have learned a lot about all of the work, skills and abilities that are necessary to create a wonderful wine.!

Thank you to Baptiste and Vivien for this great experience!

After all the excitement of the blending, we tasted some of the winning wines, which Baptiste had selected for us from the Virtuoses competition.  I stopped taking notes after the first wine, which was cuvee bois jolie from Chateau Coujan in Murviel-les-Beziers.  This was my favourite wine in that selection, wonderfully round, with a lovely “nose” of honey and pear (not literally, only notes of !! 🙂 ) and a great taste!  Of the reds, my favourite was Domaine Cathala’s cuvee A.

With the exceptions of the three wines used in the blending, you can buy all other wines mentioned in this article at the Maison des Vins or via their on-line shop.

After a late lunch (the session took longer than planned – no complaints though!) I went on to visit the cooperative winery in Saint-Chinian and then to Domaine La Madura.  More about this in a future post perhaps.

Drink responsibly!

Still lots going on!

You’ll be forgiven for thinking that at the end of the summer the area falls into a Sleeping Beauty-like torpor – but far from it!  There is still plenty going on to keep us entertained!!

As soon as fall starts, there are the harvest festivals such as the ones I wrote about last week.  The theatre season starts up again in Narbonne, Beziers and Montpellier.  Beziers has several venues for theatre, classical music, dance and even opera – you can find the full programme here.

The theatre in Narbonne is housed in a very modern building, quite a contrast to the quaint old theatre in Beziers.  It does have better sight-lines than the theatre in Beziers, and the second (smaller) auditorium has been equipped for cinema screenings.  The programme can be found via this link.

The live broadcasts from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City are screened at the Theatre in Narbonne, and at the MonCine cinema in Beziers!

Montpellier, being a big city, has a number of theatres of all types – a modern opera house, a grand 19th century theatre building and several smaller theatres.  There’s always something going on!  The programme can be found here.

November is the time when people in this area start to buy fresh foie gras and other bits of duck and goose, to prepare a stock of goodies to last them the winter!

Coursan and Limoux have their Foires au Gras – literally translated as ‘Fat Fairs’ but they are really foie gras markets – on November 18 (Coursan) and 24 (Limoux), 2018.

The truffle markets start this year on December 15 with a market in Moussoulens.  The last truffle market of the season will be on March 10, 2019 in Cabrespine – you can find dates and the programme here.

In preparation for Christmas (think shopping!!), eleven wineries in the Saint-Chinian area have a day of tastings and visits on December 8, 2018 – the programme can be found via this link.

Next, we have Christmas markets!  They are becoming ever more popular in the area – here is a small selection for you:

November 24 and 25, 2018 – (Christmas) Cracker Fair at the Abbaye de Valmagne

December 2, 2018 – Christmas market in Saint-Chinian, Salle de l’Abbatiale

December 9, 2018 – Christmas market in Capestang, Salle Nelson Mandela

In the bigger towns, the Christmas markets are on for most of December:

Les Hivernales Christmas market in Montpellier is open from November 29 to December 27, 2018.

Carcassonne’s Magie de Noel opens on December 6, 2018 and closes on January 6, 2019.

So far, most of this post has been about food and other shopping opportunities.  Here now are a few more opportunities for entertainment:

On December 12, 2018 the Salle de l’Abbatiale in Saint-Chinian hosts a concert with the La Cantarela choir from Beziers, Ulrike van Cotthem (soprano), Sebastien Mazoyer (bandoneon) and Conrad Wilkinson (piano).  There’ll be music by Debussy, Faure, Schumann and Strauss, and the Misatango by Martin Palmeri.  This should be a very good concert – don’t miss it!

The Christmas concert in Narbonne takes place on December 15 in the cathedral, with the Narbonne Symphony Orchestra, the Via Lyrica choir and Daniele Scotte (soprano).  This should be another great concert.

And finally, If you are a fan of the circus tent, you’ll have to visit Toulouse between December 1, 2018 and January 6, 2019.  The Grande Cirque de Noel pitches its tents at the Cepiere racetrack in Toulouse.  There will be acrobats, clowns, horses, daredevil stunts and more!!

 

A firm favourite

In our area, autumn is chestnut time, and there are several festivals to celebrate the chestnut harvest.  I’ve written about the festivals before.  You can find the posts here, here, and here.  This year, I went to the Chestnut Festivals in both Saint-Pons and Olargues – over the years they have become firm favourites of mine!

The weekend the festival took place in Saint-Pons, the area was experiencing a cold-snap:  temperatures plummeted to 6 Celsius, well below the seasonal average!!  The stall-holders were well wrapped up against the cold!  Below is a picture of a very warmly dressed Lex Page from Love la Foret!  Lex and her husband Andy specialise in dried mushrooms – I bought some delicious cep (porcini) mushroom powder from them a little while back, and I needed a top-up!

The festival in Saint-Pons always has a large number of exhibitors and I found many familiar stands!

I adore roasted chestnuts, so I made a beeline to the square where the chestnuts were being roasted over open fires!

The hot chestnuts were delicious AND they warmed my hands!!

Bands of roving musicians provided entertainment, and there was lots to see and taste.  Despite the cold weather this was a very enjoyable festival!

The Fete du Marron et du Vin Nouveau (the festival of chestnuts and new wine) took place in Olargues a week later.  The weather couldn’t have been more different – it was beautiful!  The sun was out and there was a marked difference in temperature – absolutely no need for thermal underwear!!

I had of course come for the roasted chestnuts!!  The set-up in Olargues is much smaller than it is in Saint-Pons, but the chestnuts were every bit as delicious!

On a recent visit to L’Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint-Jean de Minervois, I tasted a tiramisu which had been made with creme de marron, a sweet chestnut puree made from broken pieces of marrons glacés.  This was a very delicious dessert and I have attempted to recreate the recipe for you below.  When you next visit L’Auberge de l’Ecole, you’ll be able to taste Brigitte’s authentic version!

Tiramisu with creme de marron

  • Servings: 6-8
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

A delicious tiramisu, with a special flavour of autumn. You can make this in individual serving dishes, or use one large dish.

Ingredients

  • 250g mascarpone (1 tub)
  • 3 eggs
  • 125g creme de marron (chestnut puree)
  • 2 Tbsp sugar
  • 12 sponge fingers (also called ladyfingers or boudoir biscuits)
  • 200ml strong coffee
  • 2 Tbsp Rum

You will also need six to eight individual serving dishes (I used glass preserving jars), or a single serving dish, large enough to hold 6 sponge fingers in a single layer.

ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Ingredients for chestnut tiramisu

Directions


1. Separate the egg yolks from the whites.
2. In a medium-sized bowl beat the egg yolks with 1 Tbsp sugar until white and thick. Add the mascarpone and the creme de marron and mix until lump-free.
3. Beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until soft peaks form.  Add the remaining 1 Tbsp sugar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
4. Fold one third of the beaten egg whites into the mascarpone mixture to ‘loosen’ it.  Then add the remaining beaten egg whites and fold in until the mixture is smooth.
5. Pour the cold coffee into a shallow bowl and add the rum.
6. To assemble the tiramisu, put some of the mascarpone mixture in the bottom of your dish (one third of the mixture if using one large dish).  Dip each sponge finger briefly into the coffee and arrange in a neat layer in your dish.  Top with another third of the mascarpone mixture and repeat with the sponge fingers.  Finish with the last third of the mascarpone mixture and level with a spatula. If you are using individual serving dishes, break/cut the sponge fingers to make them fit.
7. Cover with cling film and leave in the fridge to chill for four to six hours.

Before serving you may wish to dust the tiramisu with cocoa powder but try it without the cocoa powder first. I find that it can overpower the delicate flavour of the chestnut puree.

Note:  In her version, Brigitte uses chestnut brandy, which is pretty impossible to find.  I found rum to be reasonable substitute, but if you can find chestnut liqueur it would be even better.  Brigitte also omits the coffee and uses only alcohol to soak the biscuits in.