Sep 15, 2017

That Old Chestnut: Vache de Chalais


It's that time of year again -- for chestnuts, roasting on an open shopping cart. It's also the time of year for marrons confits or marrons glacés, both of which are ways of saying candied chestnuts. They're very sweet (very), very festive, and very French.

Chestnuts may be part of the American tradition in Christmas song, but apart from my father and my own family, I don't really know many Americans who actually eat and enjoy chestnuts. Here, in France in the winter, there are often people roasting some with a little hibachi in a rolling shopping cart standing by metro entrances.

In the stores, you'll also see candied chestnuts popping up when the weather gets cold. They somehow manage to infuse every pore of the chestnut with sugar syrup, so that instead of dry, crumbly, and mild, they become wet, gushy, little sugar bombs.

While these are both winter-only ways of finding and eating chestnuts, you can buy chestnut purée in the grocery store year round. Often, it's a choice for a spread on your crêpe. Be warned that it looks deceptively like Nutella or chocolate spread, but it will surprise you because this crème de marron is even sweeter. It's not my favorite topping.

The irony is that when the French eat their marrons, they are not actually eating marrons. They are eating châtaigne, which is botanically a different species of chestnut and the only one that's actually edible. For some reason, nearly all chestnuts eaten are called marrons, except when ground into flour.

For many years, I thought the word for "funny" was "marron" or "chestnut". Which is funny, because it's actually spelled "marrant", but pronounced nearly identically.

For the French, the chestnut comes up much more commonly than it does in English. While the French have a word we would translate as "brown" ("brun" or "brune" in the feminine), they more commonly describe brown things as "marron". When we fill out forms for auditions for the girls, we are always asked if their hair is blonde, black, or châtain (clair or foncé, light or dark chestnut).

Horse chestnuts (which I don't believe are edible and may or may not technically be chataigne) are common on the streets of Paris, and I mean that literally: on the streets. Called marrons d'Inde (Indian Chestnuts) in French, they are the spiky balls that fall from the many trees lining certain streets and especially public gardens. The back of Notre Dame has several horse chestnut trees, pruned into those odd shapes, every autumn turning a rainbow of beautiful colors -- none of them marron.


THE CHEESE: Vache de Chalais

Vache de Chalais is a cheese made from thermalized (still not sure if that's a word in English) cows' milk, that is to say milk that has been heated to a certain point but not quite pasteurized. The Vache de Chalais (literally Cow of Chalais) is actually made in Dauphiné, not in Chalais. Chalais is a small town in southwestern France, and the Dauphiné is a historic area covering a small part of the southeast of France, in the Provence-Haut-Alpes area.

It's a fairly fresh, young cow cheese that comes wrapped in chestnut tree leaves and, theoretically, raffia to tie it all together, though I'm pretty sure the one I buy is tied with a sort of papery ribbon.

When you unwrap the cheese, you are presented with a little nugget of pretty stinky, pungent cow cheese. Given that it's a young and not aged cheese, the stink is a little surprising. It's because of it's been wrapped in there, just molding and funking up, while it waits to be unwrapped by you. 


At first I was hoping for a little nugget of brown cheese for a visual connection, but in the end I couldn't resist using Vache de Chalais, which has a very direct connection to chestnuts, quite literally touching the cheese in the form of the chestnut leaves used as wrapping.


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