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??

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.