Aside from the romantic aspect of that old Christmas song and the images it would create in my head, I could just never quite relate to the part about what was happening to those chestnuts or what you did with them once they were roasted. Just not a whole lot of chestnut-roasting going on back on the beach.
I now live in “chestnut roasting – ville”. As we slip into the “real” autumn (actually, we kind of “slammed” into it yesterday with a Mistral dropping our temps by several degrees and temps remaining in the low single digits overnight even after the winds had passed...and that is “low single digits” in centigrade, folks!) there are many signs that make the entry into autumn official. Among them is the appearance of the fellow selling roasted chestnuts. Sending a sweet smoky fragrance ahead of themselves, I became aware of their presence meters before the yellow stand came into view. A few steps later, I discovered that the fellow who carries gigantic "bouquets" of brightly colored balloons through the marchés to sell during the summer has now donned his jacket (it will soon be a down jacket and ski cap!) as he fires up his roaster to sell newsprint paper cones filled with the little smoky treasures.
I “met” this fellow during my first autumn in Aix while sipping a café under the green awning across from his stand. I was busy making a list of pros and cons for staying in Aix while waiting for someone to arrive for a meeting. Thinking I was keeping to myself with my list project, I brainstormed and weighed my options: the new opportunity of a fabulous apartment in Aix that had just become a factor in my decision-making versus a little tiny apartment in Nice just steps from the Mediterranean Sea with a sliver of a view of that same sea from the balcony off the main room. Lost in reflection before the meeting began, I would return to the moment occasionally to check my watch for how much time I had to continue...and apparently the chestnut roaster (it must have been a slow day) was watching me. From his stand directly across from the café I sat in front of, he called to me and made a comment about how it looked like I might have been stood up by the “man” I was waiting for. (These French: so romantic!) With a friendly smile, I assured him I had not been snubbed and shortly after that, the person I was to meet showed up. (In fact, this was the person who had made the apartment contact for me and was taking me in for one more showing before my decision was to be made.) An ending was created to whatever story he had woven and with a nod, he returned to tending to his roast.
I always kind of giggle at that first encounter. That “snapshot” of time has been an anchor of sorts in my memory when the roasting stand appears. I think back to that brief exchange and the “date with destiny” that I was making that day. The decision to stay in Aix was a very good one (even though I gave up a view of the sea!) And when the “marron grillés” appear each year, it is an opportunity for me to send gratitude to the Universe for how the adventure has unfolded.
As for the actual roasted chestnuts: I look forward to them being a part of the cold weather survival kit. Hot off the grill, they are served in paper cones and the sweet smoky fragrance that permeates the air of the marché is the first tease from this delicious treat. That first “sniff” is followed by the sight of variegated brown charred chestnuts toasting up on the fire and then the pleasant sensation of my cold hand wrapping around the moist warmth of the paper cone filled with steamy chestnuts. There is such pleasure in an experience that tickles all of my senses.
If you do not have ready access to roasted chestnuts, you can come by chestnuts for cooking this recipe at local markets (or Williams Sonoma – which is where I used to purchase a stash of them) around this time of year. Try them in this recipe, from my friend Jean-Marc Espinasse of French-Wine-A-Day. (Actually, he tells me this recipe is from his friend, Max, the chef/owner of Le Logis du Guetteur in Les Arcs sur Argens in the Var region. I've stayed at this lovely place several times and had some very special meals there.) Jean-Marc's recommendation for wine for this dish is a Mercurey.
Pigeon Chestnut Recipe (From Jean-Marc Espinasse)
1 carrot, finely chopped
1 red onion, finely chopped
8 pigeon breasts
Pinch of dried chili flakes
1/2 tbsp of chopped rosemary
2 fat garlic cloves, crushed
Salt and freshly ground pepper
200 Ml of Mercurey
200g vacuum-packed whole chestnuts
2 sprigs rosemary, bruised
Heat 1 tbsp. oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and fry the carrot and onion until soft and slightly coloured. Leave to cool completely.
Put the pigeon into a bowl or plastic bag with the onion and carrot, the chili, rosemary, garlic, seasoning, 2 tbsp olive oil and the wine. Cover or seal. Marinate for at least 6 hours or overnight.
When you are ready to cook the pigeon breasts, drain from the marinade. Pour the marinade into a pan, bring to the boil, then simmer gently for 20 minutes or until reduced by half. Skim the foam. Adjust the seasonings and set aside.
Meanwhile, put the chestnuts in a saucepan, cover with olive oil and add the rosemary. Heat up very gently until the oil is warm but not hot.
Remove from the heat and leave to infuse for about 15 minutes. Drain with a slotted spoon.
Heat a griddle pan over a medium heat until smoking. In batches, sear the pigeon breasts for 3 minutes on each side (they should still be pink).
Serve with the sauce and the chestnuts.