Chestnuts are abundant in the Ardèche where they are used in a variety of dishes, some sweet and some savory, and even in bread. To make this confit, Solange uses chestnuts from her own chestnut-trees.
She also uses pears from her orchard (she only grows Williams pears). The ones she uses in this particular dish are the last of the season and she has saved them for the demo. 2010 hasn't been a great year for pears: last year the pear-trees yielded a huge crop of very big pears but this year, they struggled to produce fewer and much smaller fruit. Still the pears seem marvelously fragrant and juicy to me.
For this recipe, the pears are first peeled...
... then cooked in syrup until they become translucent.
Solange uses a special knife to cut through the chestnuts but as demonstrated in the video below, a regular paring knife can also be used.Previously, when she was processing her chestnuts for commercial purposes, she had them peeled in the village by an artisan who uses a less labor-intensive technique: he places the chestnuts inside a rotating cylinder perforated with many small holes and uses a flame-thrower. The flames lick the outside of the cylinder, burning away most of the skins. The chestnuts are next dipped in water then placed on a rolling mat where the remaining skins are removed by hand. The perfect ones can be used whenever a recipe calls for whole chestnuts whereas the other ones are puréed and used in other recipes.
Solange says that it is best to let fresh chestnuts dry out a little as they are easier to peel if they have shrunk a little. Store-bought ones are usually somewhat dry already, so this step can be skipped. Since the skins are easier to remove when the chestnuts are hot, it is almost guaranteed to be a challenging exercise and caution is de rigueur. If one isn't really partial to burned fingers, it is best to use chestnuts preserved in syrup as a less hazardous alternative.
1 liter of water
400 g crystallized sugar
10 big fat chestnuts (or their equivalent in broken pieces)
1 vanilla bean (from Tahiti if available)
- Peel and cook the chestnuts as described above. Solange cautions that the chestnuts need to be peeled while still hot as their skin starts to stick again when they cool down.
- Heat water in a medium-size wide and shallow pot (to facilitate evaporation) and add the sugar
- Slice open the vanilla bean and scrape the tiny grains into the syrup, then add the two halves of the vanilla bean to the pan
- While the syrup is boiling, peel and core the pears and cut them in quarters
- Plunge them delicately into the boiling syrup and let them simmer. Refrain from handling them as they cook. To avoid breaking them, do not flip them over
- When the pears are translucent, gently add the chestnuts with some of their cooking water and let the syrup thicken again
- Pour into jars when done. The confit will keep for a couple of weeks in the fridge. To extend its shelf life, it is imperative to sterilize the jars, a precaution that Solange takes systematically. She places all her jars in a big pot, covers them with cold water, then bring the water to a boil and lets the whole thing boil at 176°F/89°C for 15 minutes. None of her jars has ever spoiled.
Unfortunately my version of iMovie doesn't allow me to add subtitles or I would have done so. But I can at least tell you what Solange is saying in this video clip (and please excuse my use of the French word "translucide" for "translucent" in the spoken dialogue. After two weeks of complete French immersion, I clearly had a hard time switching my aging neurones to English!).
- When adding the pears to the syrup, make sure they are completely immersed and let them simmer
- When preparing the chestnuts for peeling, cut through both skins all around. It is a bit hard to do but but when cut that way, both skins loosen simultaneously in boiling water.
- Using a chestnut knife makes cutting the chestnuts in a circle a bit easier but a regular paring knife can be used as well
- It doesn't matter if the cut penetrates the flesh of the chestnut
- After peeling, the chestnuts need to be cooked before they can be added to the pears
- Add some of the chestnut cooking water to the syrup in the pear pan, so that it can thicken again without caramelizing
- It doesn't matter if the chestnuts crumble when added to the pears. In fact if using preserved chestnuts you probably want to break them a bit at this point.