Do Your Chestnuts Justice
Along the route to school at the top of Circle road, it was considered supremely auspicious to come across a chestnut on the path. The reason for this was that although there was a tree, the neighborhood's squirrel population made it pretty unlikely for a kid to find one of these outide of their prickly shell, a mysterious nugget that looked like a shiny river smoothed stone. As a child I had no idea that they were edible, we just considered them good luck. I carried one in my pocket for months when I was in the second grade.
Here in Lyonnais region, the chestnuts are at market, and we see that the producers are again this year offering their sweet chestnut spread to tartine onto morning toast or to use in any number of home desserts. The glacier Nardonne, on the Saone quai, does a chestnut themed sundae that includes, in a silver chalice, the nuts in a special house prepared ice cream, the paste, candied nuts, thick hot fudge and chantilly. It is enough to put even a gourmande into a chestnut coma, and should be followed by a strong cup of coffee if you've got anything planned later in the day.
On the rue de Brest, the traiteur La Minaudière, owned by Cellerier at Les Halles, slow roasts them in sugar until they are glowing transparent candied gems that they stack in pyramids in the shop window, and remove one by one at the customer's request with silver tongs. They wrap some in golden paper. These go for a pretty penny, and the market supports it since these particular candied chestnuts from this particular traiteur are etched in stone as a must for hundreds of Lyonnais families at the Christmas holidays. If you go down the narrow side street beside the traiteur, you can peer through arched stone windows into their kitchens while they work.
Peeling chestnuts is a tiresome activity for me, ranking up there with pitting cherries or olives. This is a task I endure every year at Thanksgiving. I always prepare a chestnut and bacon dish. The idea comes from the first time I tasted a savory pork spiked chesnut puree, in China, of all places. I introduced this idea to the Thanksgiving table our first year in France, given their easy availability, and my special memories. Now, when I bring out my lists and sit down with Loic to plan the meal, he always insists on that dish. It has become a steadfast tradition and I don't think we'll ever cross it out.
Everyone has their tips and tricks for getting these nuts out of their shells. Some score and boil them, some roast them first, etc. Chestnuts are known to explode when heated in the microwave. Be careful too with your knife, it has to be ultra sharp when you peel chestnuts. The duller the knife, the more you risk injuring yourself. I remarked to one man who grows the nuts that I still had not found an easy way around this task. He brought out a pocket knife, and lickety split, peeled one of his in front of me. If it were only that easy for me! I dread the task every year but the fruit from my labor is always worth the struggle. I investigated the idea of purchasing shelled chestnuts at one time but found that industrial methods of removing the skins involve soaking in toxic acids. Needless to say I choose to do it by hand these days.
How are the French using chestnuts in savory cuisine? In Provence, specifically in the Var, you might run across farinettes (little crepes) with chestnuts, eggs, and a sauce Choron, a tomato seasoned bearnaise sauce. In the Lyonnais region, you can find chestnuts in pumpkin soup with aged Beaufort, chestnuts and bacon, or tender glazed Cantal pork ribs, served with split pea purée sauce and chestnuts. In the Aquitaine, in the southwest, you might find veal sweetbread escalopes served with brasied endives and chestnuts. In Cahors, one restauranteur starts dinner with an appetizer called the "Crème Esau" with lentils, chestnuts and truffle seasoned whipped cream. In Cannes, they're eating chestnuts with Mediterranean sea bass. In the Lorraine, slow braised chestnuts are paired with wild boar. Katie has prepared a nice dish with butternut squash with the nuts she found. The possibilities are endless.