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.