Friday, July 14, 2006

Autumnal Passion in Buenos Aires

I am passionate about chestnuts. My excuse is that I was born in the northern autumn, during their blink-and-you-have-missed-it season. When I was young, every autumn, I saw hawkers on the streets of Hong Kong frying chestnuts in massive woks (see picture) set atop gas stoves on wheels. The chestnuts were stir fried, with a shuffle, in grit and sugar. The idea is similar to roasting except the cooked nuts stayed moist as the grit helped to trap moisture and the sugar interacted with the shells resulting in a burnt toffee aroma.

Mont Blanc, needless to say, was a favourite too (a mound of chestnut puree, served with cream). When I discovered that the Japanese share my passion, I inhaled bags of Japanese style candied chestnuts on my north bound excursions. Later, I found the Italians are also fond of this treat; I looked no further for the perfect accompaniment to my dark drop of cafe ristretto. Of course, one cannot forget the French, after all candied chestnuts' other name is marron glacé. And the most famous chestnut products come from none other than the French house of Clement Faugier.

I have been eyeing up an amazing sounding recipe for a Chocolate Chestnut Cake in Nigella Lawson's Feast. It is Ms. Lawson's latest tomb to celebrate her new phase in life as Mrs. Charles Saatchi. She specified chestnut puree from Clement Faugier de l'Ardèche; yup, French, all 439g of it!

I read up to that point and almost turned the page. I am in Buenos Aires! I thought to myself, where am I going to find Clement Faugier's products? In Hong Kong, easy, Fauchon has an outpost or any of the food markets stocking imports from all over the world, many of them fly fresh produce in daily, would certainly stock their full range.

When I spotted their la crème de marrons, while not the exact ingredient, in my local supermarket in Congreso, I was over the moon. My excitement was short lived, it lasted until I noticed the A$40 price tag. At US$13 for a small tin of mashed chestnut, adding to it the cost of a few bars of fine 70% cocoa dark chocolate, this unfancy cake would cost more than the sum of my monthly utility bills!

After the devaluation of the Peso, imports have become expensive. Further, there is a 50% import tax and extras paid by importers to "lubricate the system". In the end, the consumers have to bear all these costs as a punishment for not using Industria Argentina or not being content with local delicacies.

Just as I was giving up hope in making this cake, I somehow ended up wandering along Arenales (street name) in Recoleta. I suddenly realised I had no cash to pay for afternoon tea later so I walked through Libertad to Santa Fe, the Oxford Street of Buenos Aires City, searching for an ATM. As I walked along Libertad, I spotted some imported De Cecco pasta and canisters of Illy coffee displayed at the front of a deli. I made a mental note to go in on my way back with moolah.

With cash burning a hole in my pocket, I went back to the shop looking for nothing in particular. The owner was very friendly so I didn't want to leave empty handed. I found some single origin dark chocolates with 70% cocoa named Salgado. The maker is Fenix which produces the unsweetened 70% cocoa slabs I bought from Doña Clara for cooking (see previous post). The staff there had told me Fenix is the top Argentine maker so I dropped a 100g bar of Carenero Superior, a "special cru" from Venezuela, into my shopping basket.

On my way to the register, I spotted the distinctive label of Clement Faugier. Upon closer observation, I found a whole range of their products displayed with some Argentine preserved chestnuts behind the owner who was manning the counter. What kept my interest, however, were the prices. The same la crème de marrons was at least 10% cheaper here; what's more was this shop also stocked their whole chestnuts and puree de marrons.

I didn't let on my ecstatic state of mind when I saw the puree was only A$13 or US$4. I just casually asked to see "the French one over there" por favor. Exactly the 439g of what Ms. Lawson commanded. I signalled to the owner to add it to my other purchases. He was very careful in pointing out to me that was only a puree NOT the crème. I tried my best to refrain from laughing: yes, yes, I really would rather pay a whole US$9 less to have just châtaignes NOT the added sugar, glucose syrup, and vanillin; merci beaucoup!!
Thanks to Diki on Libertad, I am finally going to bring lovely autumn into my kitchen in the midst of this miserable Argentine winter.

p.s. Besides Nigella's chocolate chestnut cake, I would love to make chestnut bavarois again. I first made this intensely chestnutty pudding while staying with my friend Claudia in the village of Molazzana in the middle of a harsh northern Italian winter. We were well instructed by another friend, a great home cook, Bruno Barovier. We simply mixed a couple of egg yolks, milk, 2 soaked gelatin leaves and a tin of chestnut puree, then stirred the mixture over a low flame until the gelatin had dissolved completely. Separately we whipped a carton of cream with some sugar and then folded it into the cooled chestnut mixture.

This pudding holds some very fond memories for me...Claudia didn't have room in her bar fridge, her only fridge; so the three of us decided to put the bowl of bavarois in a plastic bag and tied the bag to the window from the outside. It sat steadily on the window sill braving nature. When we came back from our walk in the hills that afternoon, a chilled pudding was waiting for us in perfectly tempting condition

Chestnut Rum Bavarois:
Serves 4

250ml (1 cup) milk
4 egg yolks
1 tablespoon sugar
3 teaspoons gelatine
2 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon rum
250g chestnut spread
300ml thickened cream

Heat milk in pan until warmed. Beat egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale in colour. Add milk to egg mixture and mix well; return mixture to saucepan. Whisk mixture over low heat until thickened; do not boil. Cool slightly.

Sprinkle gelatine over water, dissolve over hot water. Add gelatine to custard mixture. Add chestnut spread and rum to custard mixture, mix well. Allow mixture to cool. Whip half the cream until soft peaks form, combine custard with whipped cream, mix well.

For a fancier version, lightly oil four individual moulds of 3/4-cup capacity, fill moulds with chestnut mixture. Refrigerate several hours or overnight.

Diki, Libertad 1157

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