While Perigord is recognised for its superior walnuts the Ardeche is world-renowned for sweet chestnuts. Towering chestnut trees, Castanea sativa, grow wild in the Haute Ardèche, where the hillsides are clothed with these majestic trees bearing handsome deckle-edged leaves.
Growing wheat or other grains is not feasible in much of this mountainous region so for centuries flour was made by grinding dried chestnuts, the fruit of the ‘bread trees’.
In his book, Marrons et Chataignes d’Ardeche, Jacky Reyne estimates that every year each citizen of France consumes: 30 roasted chestnuts, 6 tablespoons of chestnut puree, a few fresh raw chestnuts and one marron glace. It’s a shock to discover that my annual consumption of all forms of chestnut appears to equal that of a dozen French people.
Given my fondness for the versatile Ardeche chestnut, I often return to Oxford laden with jars of roasted chestnuts, tins of chestnut puree, and boxes of delectable marrons glaces.
Steeping cooked and peeled chestnuts in a vanilla-rich syrup had been an autumn activity carried out in domestic kitchens of France for centuries. A recipe for making marrons glaces appears in the 1867 edition of Audot’s L a Cuisiniere de la Campagne. Even earlier, Careme created his croque-en-bouche filled with caramelised marrons glaces, doubtless made in his own kitchen.
Then in 1882 Clement Faugier founded his flourishing enterprise in Privas and brought marrons glaces to a wider public - each chestnut bathed sixteen times in syrup then packed in pleated paper. Nowadays, the Ardeche even produces a chestnut liqueur which I spoon over ice-cream and dribble into cakes.
Unlike many nuts, chestnuts are not rich in oil which makes then a versatile ingredient in both sweet and savoury dishes. I often add chestnut flour to my home-made bread and in the Ardeche the flour is used to make pasta and noodles. I cook roasted chestnuts in red wine and spices for stuffing vegetables and for filling pies. And of course the wide range of sweet dishes stretches from tarts, cakes and biscuits to ice-cream, sorbets and many other desserts.
At Christmas, I blend sweetened chestnut puree with whipped cream for filling the traditional Buche de Noel and I prepare a chocolate chestnut pudding known as Turinois. Last year, I devised a flour-free chestnut sponge cake much enjoyed by my French friends.
Ambrose Heath, the prolific cookery writer from the 1930s onwards, gives a recipe for Coupe Clo-Clo, a simple confection of layers of vanilla ice-cream and crumbled marrons glaces in The Country Life Cookery Book (1937) with beautiful wood engravings by Eric Ravilious. This delightful and useful book has now been republished by Persephone Books.
The long association of marrons glaces with the festive season has prompted me to devise a Christmas concoction of marrons glaces laced with dark rum or brandy for serving on any of the twelve days of celebration. In the Ardeche during December packets of broken marrons glaces are often on sale which are ideal for this recipe.
BAGATELLE DE MARRONS GLACES AU RHUM
I serve this French version of an English trifle in individual stemmed wine glasses. Brandy can replace rum, if you prefer.
9 sponge fingers or boudoir biscuits
9 marrons glaces
6 tablespoons of dark rum or brandy
500 g/ 1 lb 2 oz sweetened chestnut puree 450 ml/ 15 fl oz full cream milk
1⁄2 vanilla pod, split lengthways 4 egg yolks
2 tablespoons caster sugar
2 teaspoons cornflour
300 ml/ 10 fl oz double cream
Break or cut a sponge finger into small pieces and place in the base of a 250 ml/ 8 fl oz wine glass. Crumble a marron glace over the sponge finger then dribble a tablespoon of rum on top. Carefully drop a rounded tablespoon of sweetened chestnut puree into the glass and spread in an even layer. Repeat with the other wine glasses.
To make the custard, heat the milk with the vanilla pod in a double boiler or a heavy-based saucepan. In a bowl blend together the egg yolks with the sugar and cornflour. When the milk is almost boiling remove the vanilla pod and scrape the seeds into the milk. Stirring all the time, pour the milk onto the eggs then return the mixture to the pan. Cook over medium heat, stirring the custard with a wooden spoon until it has slightly thickened – it should coat the back of the spoon. Remove the pan from the heat and stand it in shallow cold water to arrest the cooking then cover with a plate to prevent a skin forming.
When the custard has cooled pour it into the wine glasses and set aside until cold. Crush the remaining sponge fingers into fine crumbs and sprinkle over the custard.
Whisk the cream until stiff but still glossy. Gently fold in the remaining chestnut puree but leave the mixture with dark streaks of the puree. Place a heaped spoonful of the chestnut cream in each glass and decorate with half a marron glace. Chill the wine glasses for 2-3 hours before serving.