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.  

 

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A taste of autumn

Until not all that long ago, chestnuts used to be very much a part of everyday life in Southern France.  For the people in the more remote hillside areas, chestnuts were a staple of their diet – they would add chestnuts to stews, make them into soups, use them for making breads and pancakes and much more.

Chestnuts are high in protein and carbohydrates, but they have a very short shelf-life when fresh.  To be able to eat them year round, they had to be dried in a secadou, a two-story building, roofed with slate.  The floor between the two stories would be made from closely spaced iron rods or wooden batons.  On the ground floor a smoldering fire would be lit, and the chestnuts would be spread out on the floor above.

The secadou is on the very right of the picture

The heat and smoke rose up through the floor and cured and dried the fresh chestnuts, turning them into chataignons.  The outer shell and inner skin had to be stripped off the ‘nut’, partly with a machine and partly by hand,  Once all that was done, the chataignons had a very long shelf life.  They could be ground into flour, or rehydrated as required.

Today’s recipe is a very simple and delicious one.  For each person you need five chataignons, a good handful of lambs lettuce (mache), and a heaped tablespoon of lardons.  If you are unable to get chataignons, you can also use fresh chestnuts for this recipe.

Chataignons – dried chestnuts

If you use chataignons they need to be soaked, brought to the boil and simmered until tender.  The cooking time will depend on the age of the chataignons.  They should be just cooked and still hold their shape. Mine took one hour.

“Chataignons” cooked on the left, dried on the right.

Blanch the lardons by dropping them into boiling water.  Let the water come to the boil again, then strain, and rinse the lardons with cold water.  Drain them and set aside.

Raw lardons on the left, blanched lardons on the right

Wash the lambs lettuce (mache) and dry it well with the help of a salad spinner or a tea towel.

When you are ready to serve the salad, heat a frying pan on medium heat.  The pan should be large enough to hold all the ingredients in a single layer.  Add a little olive oil, then add the drained chataignons and lardons.  Cook slowly, gently turning the lardons and chataignons from time to time, until they are golden.

Can you hear the bacon pieces sizzling??

Arrange the lettuce on individual serving plates, and distribute the chataignons and lardons evenly between the plates.  Add a splash of red wine vinegar to the frying pan to “deglaze” it, then pour the juices from the frying pan over the lettuce.  Serve immediately.  Bon Appetit!!

I bought my chataignons from Fritz and Almuth Schwaan of Ferme de Dausse, near Saint Etienne d’Albagnan.  You may also find chataignons at the Fete de la Chataigne in Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres on November October 28 and 29, 2017.

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Saved in the nut of time

Some of you received this post as a completely blank message a few weeks ago – my apologies for not getting to grips with the new WordPress dashboard !! 🙂

The title refers to the Fete de la Chataigne, the chestnut festival, in St Pons which has been taking place every October for many, many years.  A few months ago, when I enquired for the exact date with the tourist office, I was told that there would be no chestnut festival this year, that it had been cancelled.  I was completely speechless – those of you who know me can attest that that’s not something which happens often! 😀  How could one of the biggest autumn festivals in the area be cancelled?

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A little digging on the grapevine revealed some possible reasons.  During the municipal elections earlier in the year, the voters of St Pons had elected a new mayor.  It appears that some of the organisers of the festival had been on the losing ticket, and felt personally slighted during the electoral campaign.  They decided not to continue with the organising of the festival, and hence the information was put out that there was to be no Fete de la Chataigne this year.

Back in August I spoke with one of the traders who is a regular at the fete, and he was devastated at the prospect, as the fete is an important fixture in his sales calendar.  I imagine that for many of the clubs and associations in St Pons, such as the parent-teacher association and the rugby club, the fete is their main fundraiser of the year, and a cancellation would leave a fairly noticeable hole in their budgets.

As the time of the fete drew nearer, I checked again with the tourist office, and this time the answer was different – the fete would be taking place after all, on the last weekend of October, as before.  Yippee!!! 😀  Apparently the new mayor and his council had mobilised as many of the local associations and clubs as they could, to help make sure that this year’s fete would be as good as ever.

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I visited the fete on the Saturday, as it’s usually the less frequented day of the weekend.  The weather was glorious, sunny and warm, in total contrast to the previous year – see the article here – when the weather was grey and drizzly.  I was joined by a few friends, and we got there early AND bagged a parking space not too far away 🙂 !!

The very first stall we came to looked interesting: a food truck, offering a variety of chestnut themed food.  We decided to earmark that for our lunch, on our way back from exploring the fete!

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The selection of stalls at the fete was eclectic and wonderful, as always!  No changes there!!

From cheese to vanilla, via saffron, garlic, and sausages, from balloons to baby boots, and everything beyond – it was all there, and wonderful to see, smell, taste and buy!

In the big square the chestnuts were being roasted in enormous steel drums as always, with the wood for the fire piled up high.

Here, would you like to try one?  Careful, don’t burn yourself, they are quite hot!!

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There was so much tasty looking food, tempting us to stop for lunch, such as the aligot below (potato puree with fresh cow’s cheese), but we held onto our resolution to try the food truck.

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The nougat was looking luscious, and I know that my sister-in-law will be none too happy that I did not buy any for her…

The basket-weaver from last year was there too, with more beautiful offerings!

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And of course there were chestnuts for sale, either fresh for roasting, or dried, as flour, in syrup, in jars already cooked and peeled, or …  Seems that there is quite a lot you can do with chestnuts 😀

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We did eventually head back towards the car, and “our” food truck for lunch.  The sign said Chez Tina, and the menu had been specially planned for the chestnut festival: small pizzas with bacon, caramelised onions, chestnut pieces, cheese, and chestnut honey; chestnut soup; chestnut gnocchi.  There was also pannacotta with chestnut honey caramel, and a chestnut cake, to follow our main course.  As we stood admiring the inside of the van, and deciding what to order, we noticed a sticker saying “Taos” on the counter.  So we asked Tina whether she’d visited there, and it turned out that she’s actually a native of Taos, New Mexico, who has lived in France for some time.  Her French was very good.  I would have never imagined her to be from the other side of the Atlantic ocean!  We had a good chat and a few laughs.  Here’s Tina preparing our pizzas in her wood-fired oven.

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We decided to have some chestnut soup followed by pizza – since chestnut soup can be a little rich we shared two portions between the four of us.

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But we each had our own pizza!!
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Of course we couldn’t resist dessert – and somehow I managed to miss taking pictures of the pannacotta, and the chestnut cake, with the chestnut honey caramel.  How greedy of me!  All the food was totally delicious, and we were all so glad we had waited with our lunch!!  Tina is a regular in St Pons with her food truck, and you can find out more via her website.  I can tell you she was planning to take some time off during the winter, but I am looking forward to seeing her again before too long!

So it looks as though the future of the Fete de la Chataigne is in good hands and will continue to attract lots of visitors to St Pons each October. The only thing missing was the amateur dramatics piece, which is usually presented on a stage across the river, below the tourist office…  Perhaps next year??

My kinda Pastis

Fall is a time for festivals, and many of them have a harvest theme.  In St Nazaire de Ladarez the festival is called Fete de la Noisette, celebrating the hazelnuts which are locally grown.  A bit of history to start with:  during the winter of 1709 temperatures dropped very low, and the olive trees froze.  The farmers decided to diversify and planted hazel trees to provide a cash crop, and from 1722 organised the sale of the totality of their crop in one lot, in order to get the best price.  In 1833 a total of 137 farmers founded a company for the sale of their hazelnuts.

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Fast forward to today:  hazelnuts are no longer a cash crop, but there are still a good number of trees, and the Fete de la Noisette is keeping traditions alive – not least the tradition of the Pastis.  No, not the drink but a kind of cake, made of puff pastry and filled with hazelnuts.  Pastis is an Occitan word, meaning “mixture”, and in this case a secret mixture is sandwiched between two sheets of puff pastry.  Generally a Pastis was a cake prepared for special occasions and festivals, and different villages have their own recipes, all kept secret and usually passed from one generation to another.  In Thezan les Beziers the Pastis is prepared with almonds, in Laurens with walnuts, and in Pailhes with almonds and apples, but we are in St Nazaire, so it’s with hazelnuts.

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If you want to try your hand at it, my recommendation is to use a recipe along the lines of a Galette des Rois, substitute hazelnuts for almonds, and use less butter.  The top of the Pastis was brushed with something tasting of orange, or perhaps the sugar used for the dusting was orange flavoured.  In any case I’m sure you’ll have a delicious tasting cake!!

When I arrived at the fete, everyone was still in church for the blessing of the harvest and the Pastis of course.  Even so, a good many people were about and some of the stalls were doing brisk trade.

There was a fair amount of hazelnut related food, such as the hazelnut pastries made by one of the local associations.

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And there were chestnuts of course – freshly roasted, of course, and to be enjoyed with a glass of wine.

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Once everyone had left church I took a quick look – from the outside it looked rather austere, and I am guessing that it was re-built during a prosperous period in the 19th century.

The cafe Aux Acacias just across the road from the church was humming;  they had set up a bar outside and were selling drinks and plates of grilled sausages with fries.  Guess what I had for lunch?? 🙂  A band was entertaining us with jazz music and the sun was shining – what could be better?

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After lunch a walk around the village was called for and there were many interesting things to discover.  La Ruche du Midi was a cooperative society based in Beziers, which once operated 250+ grocery stores in the area.

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At some point St Nazaire must have been quite prosperous, judging by the beautiful ironwork on many facades.

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The tower is the best preserved part of the medieval castle of the village.

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I think I surprised kitty at first, but he/she was very patient with me!

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Back at the fete the children were entertained with rides around the village.

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Before heading back to the car I bought some apples from Mr Hortala, who has his orchards in Plaussenous (you try and pronounce that!!).  They were delicious!

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My car was parked just next door to the cemetery.  Whenever I have the time I will always have a look around a cemetery.  There’s always so much to discover, and the graveyard in St Nazaire was no exception.  It is arranged on several levels because of the hilly terrain, and there were beautiful flowers and some interesting monuments.

And just before I left I discovered this little creature.  It was sitting on a Chrysanthemum flower and had a kind of triumphant look on its face, or was that a look of relief? 😉

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Nuts for patchwork

Perhaps you’re wondering where this post will go after you have read the title – if you are concerned please be reassured, all will be fine!!

Patchwork always plays a role in the Fete de la Chataigne in St Pons, and this year was no exception.  Past tense because the Fete took place on the weekend of October 26/27, 2013.  As ever the Fete de la Chataigne was worth a visit, if for no other reasons than for the sheer variety of stands and the entertainment on offer.  Let me start with the patchwork though.  The exhibition is always held in the Chapelle des Penitents, a former chapel which is now used as a community space.

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The stone walls provide a good backdrop for the quilts and embroideries, which have been lovingly stitched by the 20 or so members of L’Atelier Picoutaille. Every two years a new exhibition sees the light of day, and this year’s new show had ‘the home’ as its theme. The variety of works is amazing and I hesitate to hazard a guess as to how many hours must have gone into the combined works – perhaps too many to count.

Pieces ranged from large bed-cover-sized to much smaller works.

There was also a display case of old boutis work, where the relief is produced by padding with cotton wool.  Exquisite to look at, but I’m sure not very easy to produce!

Some of the ladies of the Atelier Picoutaille were working away as we got there, mostly on small things such as pincushions, which were sold on the spot.

Maisons de Campagne, a haberdasher’s shop from Montpellier, had a stand next to the ladies and their projects, selling a beautiful selection of patchwork fabrics and embroidery patterns, and everything in between.   I find that this exhibition is usually a great stop for small christmas presents!!

As for the rest of the fete, there were many wonderful stalls – a good few of them selling food of course,

…and baskets of many kinds.

This year the entertainment was a re-enactment of the visit of the bishop of St Pons to the building site of the cathedral, during the early 18th century.  The local theater group, La Compagnie de la Source, had set the scene outside the cathedral, with a big stage to one side and a squirrel wheel (or treadmill crane) on the other.  The squirrel wheel has people inside, walking back or forward to raise or descend heavy loads.  The rope winds around the axle so even a relatively light person can lift heavy stones.  Next to the squirrel wheel was a stonemason, who was working on a cross vault.

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There was also a machine for making rope, and I managed to take a video for you of how it works.  Note to e-mail subscribers:  please go to the website for the blog to see the videos.

The soundtrack in the background is of the stonemason chipping away at his stone and chatting with the onlookers.  Right at the end of the video you can hear the little band of soldiers singing Alouette, a popular children’s song, as they march towards the square.

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The soldiers and the capitan were very amusing and entertained the crowd before the main show started.

The costumes for this year’s show were amazing, and it seemed as though a good part of the town was participating!

And then there was the band – Pescaluna – playing traditional and mediaeval music.

IMG_8716I have two videos for your entertainment:

To escape the drizzle I visited the cathedral – amazing what can be found in some churches!  I seem to have photographed a lot of grotesque faces which are carved in the wooden panelling!

The sacristy was open, and I couldn’t resist a look.  The structure alone is impressive, and the items on display are beautiful.

The embroidery is incredible and some of the metal objects are amazing – I’m glad I don’t have to polish any of them :-)!

Then there was a corner of seemingly abandoned things.  The statue looked rather sad and left out, and the tabernacle had definitely seen better days!

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IMG_8658But hey, I almost forgot!  We are here to celebrate the chestnut harvest!!  So here you are, enjoy your cornet of hot, roasted chestnuts!  And remember to come back again next year.

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Chestnuts roasting on an open fire…

Each year in October the town of Saint Pons de Thomieres holds the Fete de la Chataigne or chestnut festival, which has become one of the most visited fetes in the region.  This year for the 35th time, the fete took place over two days this last weekend.  Despite the cold and damp weather I braved the trip to St Pons – I did not want to miss the roasted chestnuts!

Chestnuts were a way of life in the region for a long time – where the grapes would not grow the chestnut trees would thrive.  Its sobriquet was the bread tree as the dried chestnuts were nourishing the population through the winter months, being rich in both starch and protein. The fete in St Pons cherishes the tradition and each year a new theme is found to keep it fresh for participants and visitors alike.  This year it revolved around legends and fairy tales.  The Compagnie de la Source, a local amateur theatre group prepares a piece each year, which is played on a specially constructed stage over the river Jaur in the centre of town.

You can see that I got there just around lunch time – all of the actors were tucking in, and I can assure you that the food was real enough, no stage food here!  Preparations for the food are usually made on site, cooking in the old-fashioned way over open fires, the way grandmother or great-grandmother would have done, and often with antique implements and cauldrons.

Since I couldn’t participate in that meal, I looked around the Place du Foiralet for something to eat.  At one of the stands I spied truffade which is a delicious potato dish, just right for a cold day.  Sliced potatoes are cooked in lard (traditionally) or oil until they are tender, seasoned with salt and pepper and a little garlic, then cheese is added and all stirred until the cheese is melted and starts to pull strings.  Traditionally the cheese used is tome fraiche, a cow’s milk cheese from the Aubrac, but as that’s not always easy to find you could substitute Cantal or another mild firm cheese.

Did I say that there were sausages to go with this?  Very delicious!! Oh, and to finish there was a cake made with cooked & pureed chestnuts and orange flower water, prepared after grandmother’s recipe.  And that grandmother did know her stuff, the cake was divine!

Now suitably fortified it was time to wander around the market stalls where all kinds of things were for sale:  honey, chestnuts, ham, cheese, mohair (Jean Paul Dore from Sarrazo was there), wine, sweaters, chestnuts, tapenade, sweets, baskets, knives, nougat, crepes, sausages and oh, did I mention chestnuts?  I particularly liked the stall where the baskets were made from chestnut twigs.

In the former chapel of the penitent order the local patchwork club had an exhibition of beautiful quilts, lace and needlework.  And then I came across the clog dancers, Lous Castanhaires dal Soumal.  The group was founded in 1962 and has been preserving traditional music and dances ever since.  You can tell that they are enjoying themselves!

Now, back to the chestnuts!  For the fete in St Pons the chestnuts are roasted in great mesh drums over a brisk fire, and over the two days more than two tonnes will have been roasted and eaten.  I adore roast chestnuts and somehow they taste best when cooked in large quantities over an open fire.

The former cathedral in St Pons is an interesting church well worth a visit.  I was lucky – the choir, which is usually closed to the public was open so I could get a good look at the main altar with the organ above, and the beautiful choir stalls.

As I walked around, one of the ladies who was keeping an eye, tugged at my sleeve and whispered to me to be sure to visit the sacristy, by that little door over there.  So off I went and I am glad I did.  One of the particularities in St Pons is that the altar is at the wrong end of the church, generally it is at the eastern end but here it is at the western end of the building.  But strictly speaking it is not at the end of the building, as I found out as I went into the sacristy.  There’s quite a bit of the building left behind the altar.

The original romanesque church had a big gothic sanctuary with chapels all round added to it, but that part was destroyed by the Huguenots during the wars of the religion, leaving only the choir standing.  With money lacking to re-build the sanctuary, a new facade was built closing the church at its eastern end and the altar transferred to the western end.  In order to support the weight of the monumental altar (all made of local marble) and the organ, buttressing arches were built and part of former choir turned into the sacristy.  Here is where the beautifully embroidered liturgical garments are stored in specially built wardrobes.

Gold thread, and lots of it, making the most beautiful patterns.  I’m always amazed at the skill and time which has gone into these objects.

In a little strong room to one side is stored the Tresor the precious objects belong to the church such as the chalices and perhaps the odd reliquary or two, etc.

On one of the capitals in the sacristy I spied this strange representation of some poor sinners being devoured by leviathan.  I did not have a very thorough look around but this seemed to be the only figurative capital in the whole church.

On the way out there was another beautifully carved and gilt altar, and I’ll leave you with this.