We were just watching what they called the 'enthronement' of some new Chevaliers on the steps of the mairie – you never know what village life is going to throw up next - when Lazare, a kindly old man from a neighbouring village, came up and
We were just watching what they called the 'enthronement' of some new Chevaliers on the steps of the mairie – you never know what village life is going to throw up next - when Lazare, a kindly old man from a neighbouring village, came up and asked us if we could tell the difference between a châtaigne and a marron.
Why, yes, we said: but which is which sometimes catches us out. They're both chestnuts; ordinary chestnuts – châtaignes - grow like weeds on our hillside and indeed all over the valley, so plentifully that they once provided the staple food of the area for both man and beast. Marrons are generally bigger, with a firmer texture and a more refined flavour. Let's hear it for marrons, we say.
Undeterred, Lazare went on to explain the difference: châtaignes have a tiny beard at the point of the husk and a feathery down round the bald pate of the nut; marrons don't. Wait, I'll show you, he said, looking about for examples of each, as though they might be lying about as plentifully on the village square as they do in the local woods. But there's never a raw chestnut about when you want one, and the only solution was for him to explore the paper cornet Josephine had just bought at the roast chestnut stall.
Lazare helped himself, blowing on his fingers, but the roasting process had charred the husk beyond recognition, leaving no trace of singed beard or feathery down, if there'd been any to start with. He did his best: after a bite out the first, he pronounced it marron. And the second. And the third. And the fourth. All marrons, it seemed.
We were wondering if he was going to scoff the lot - in the interests of correct identification, of course – when everyone's attention was drawn to a burst of mighty singing from the steps of the mairie: the Chevaliers new and old - and some are very elderly - having made or renewed their promise of undying loyalty to the Brotherhood of St Fogbert and the local mountain that bears his name, filled their glasses with the first wine of the year and broke into a Provençal song called Coupo Santo ('Hallowed Cup'), greatly magnified over the village loudspeaker system.
The public had been introduced to the new Chevaliers one by one, as they received their regalia from the Seneschal of the Order. There were half-a-dozen of them: a retired school inspector, a local historian, a brace of maires from other villages, the sous-prefet . . .
I'd been conscious of the elder brethren earlier that morning, in the church, out for what they call in Scotland the annual kirking. The village was en fête, putting its best foot forward to celebrate the chestnut harvest and the vin primeur, the first wine from the September grape harvest. No village fête of this kind is complete without a festive Mass in the church, and no festive Mass is complete without a procession of the Chevaliers in their scarlet cloaks, chains of office and wide-brimmed plumed black hats, like so many inmates of the Old Musketeers' Home out on parole. And no festive procession of the Chevaliers down the aisle is complete without a festive march from the organ.
This is where I came in, up in the organ loft. However, French marches aren't quite like anybody else's: they're a good bit quicker, 140 to the minute if you're that interested, whereas élite formations like the Foot Guards or the US Marines get from A to B perfectly comfortably at 120 to the minute.
Up in the organ loft you might as well sit in your broom cupboard for all you can see of what's going on, so Josephine keeps me posted in a series of urgent whispers: 'They're assembling outside the church door . . . they're lining up . . . ready . . . steady . . . WAIT! Something's gone wrong . . . oh no, the flag's come off its pole: oh, how awful for them . . . they must have caught it on the door . . .'
I sit back from the keyboard. This could take some time. Occasionally, to while away long inaudible sermons, we take a flask of coffee up to the organ loft, but don't tell anyone. Could there be time for a fly cup now?
But no, the Chevaliers manage to repair the flag - it simply hooks on, it turns out - Josephine gives me the nod and my fingers scurry over a sprightly Napoleonic march called L'Armée de la Sambre et de la Meuse. But I can sense that Josephine is becoming agitated. Something's wrong.
'Slow down!' she hisses. 'It's too fast! They can't keep up!' So I put the brakes on to about 100 a minute – which is the pace the Foreign Legion marches at, incidentally: it must be all that desert sand – and eventually the Chevaliers make it to the front pews and the service begins. The Mass is undisturbed apart from someone's mobile ringing (Mozart's Rondo alla turca, if you want the full flavour of the interruption) and a passing Demon Accordionist outside giving the street Moonlight Tango in unwitting competition with the Agnus Dei inside.
Back to our chestnuts. A gem of a recipe book, Sarah and Dennis La Touche's The Les Mimosas Cookbook (ISBN 1-86962-017-8, if you ever feel like ordering it) carries a recipe for confiture de marrons, chestnut preserve. Give it a try, if chestnuts are available where you live. It's not hard.
Ingredients for 8-10 pots:
2kg (4½lb) peeled chestnuts
12 tablespoons water
Sugar – for quantity, see below
2 split vanilla pods
Put the peeled chestnuts in a large pan, cover with cold water and bring to the boil. Cook for 40 minutes.
Drain the water and rub the chestnuts through a sieve, or purée them in a food processor. You may have to do this in several batches.
Weigh the purée, put it in a jamming pan, add the same weight of sugar, the 12 tablespoons of water and the vanilla pods. Mix well and heat slowly, stirring continuously. The jam is ready when it comes away from the bottom of the pan as you stir it.
Turn off the heat, remove the vanilla pods and put into sterilised jars. Bon appetit!
If you can't find peeled chestnuts, you may have to roast fresh ones. If you can't do it in the embers of the fire, a really hot oven will char the skins off. But remember Lazare: if you want to tell châtaignes from marrons, it's best to try before roasting.
There'll be more singing from the mairie steps soon. My small choir, called Les Jeudistes because the ten of us rehearse on Thursdays, will be singing carols from round Europe as part of the Marché de Noël, the Christmas market, held at night. A magical occasion, if all goes well: last year we had to compete with zebra-skins drums from a stall selling African goods, not a happy mix. We've cleared an undisturbed slot with Charlotte the stallholder this year, but so far no one's been able to contact the Demon Accordionist . . .
Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!