Until I moved to France, I’d never tasted a chestnut. I wasn’t even sure they were edible. Of course, I’d heard about roasted chestnuts being sold on the streets of New York City in the winter, but they were an abstract notion totally separate with the smooth shell of the nut that I ran my fingers over at Purim service every year. At least I think it was Purim service. I was never an observant child…
It was close in on twilight when I wrapped myself in a sweater, coat, gloves and scarf and set off into the cold. The streets near my apartment were empty, but as I crossed Boulevard Foch into the official center of town, they suddenly came alive with families, couples and friends wrapped up as I was and headed in the same general direction.
Come December every city in France, and I’m told in Germany, has a Marché de Noël, or Christmas Market. Perhaps you’ve heard of the one in Strasbourg, which is the biggest and most famous. All the other market in France follow the same design; little faux-wood chalets with flip-down fronts where vendors set up their wares. Winter scarves and hats alongside homemade wooden toys and local and traditional foods. The little alleys are cramped with people browsing, sipping drinks, nibbling on some treat or just talking, causing traffic jams as everyone else tries to move around them.
Though there is a Marché de Noël in Toulon, I always found it a little sad. Maybe it was the palm trees and warm breezes coming off the Mediterranean or perhaps it was the atmosphere of the city which was never very happening on weekends and after 5pm. I hardly ever paid much attention to the Christmas market in Toulon. I’d walk through it once a year, briefly look over the stalls without much interest and then move on to my main destination.
Angers is a lively city. When I first moved here it had recently been named one of the top cities in France to live in. Though it has a population of only 400,000 the streets always seem full of people out and about poking into stores, scrutinizing shop windows and snacking. It was no surprise that the Christmas Market held at Place Raillement just outside the theater was packed even on a Sunday Night.
Though at first, I was there mostly to look rather than taste, it was cold and I couldn’t resist getting into the spirit of things with a cup of vin chaud or mulled wine.
Now warm all the way through, I wove my way through the crowds, taking care not to be jostled, and thinking to myself that mulled wine is probably not a good idea when wearing a white coat.
I considered buying a pair of elf slippers for my husband just because I knew the cats would love it.
Dried sausages made of any combination of meat and spices you can think of. I’d love to know why these are so popular at Christmas as I always see them sold, but hardly see them served.
A carousel for the children. A fair share of tantrum-throwing-tots were to be found. I guess they’re par for the course at any place teeming with chocolate and sticky treats. For once, I was too caught up in the atmosphere to care.
Nougat: another Christmas treat, originally Provencal and part of the traditional 12 desserts served with the Christmas meal. I still can’t get over seeing it in its natural state; wheels as thick as a tomme of cheese.
These colorful tea sets made me want a reason to buy them. Maybe I could open up a Salon de Thé when this crazy year is all over?
Like fondue? Like ham and potatoes? Tartiflette is another cheese-based mountain delicacy, and they were selling it to go. I toyed with the idea of having it for dinner but knew it would go cold before I could get it home.
I made my way through the rows with a bit more gusto, once I’d finished the wine. I was warm, I didn’t have to worry about my coat, and I wanted to see. So many goodies on offer. Chocolate covered mousse in the shape of bells, fried churros, baguettes sliced in halves the long way and spread with ham, cheese and tomatoes, even candy apples – called pomme d’amour or apples of love. I wanted to taste everything. Hot chocolate, cider, aperitifs laced with piment d’Espelette from the Pays-Basque. Gingerbread cookies with frosting.
As the sun disappeared, I went across the tram tracks to appreciate the Christmas tree, the lights pouring down from the theater facade reminiscent of icicles. That was when I spotted it.
Toulon had one of these too. The little train engine had a tiny opening barely big enough for the two people inside. A long line of people had massed and were waiting patiently as the woman pulled off a paper cone from the pack hanging above her head and filled it with something warm. The man beside her lifted the lid on a massive aluminum ring and with a scoop poured out the solid, slightly burnt brown shells and with a tin ringing they hit the warm metal top ready to be served.
Roasted chestnuts. Though I’d made them once my first winter in France, I didn’t do a very good job of it and hadn’t attempted since. I’d often seen the chestnut vendors in France and la Seyne telling myself I really should try them one day… see what all the fuss was about. Tonight was the night. I got in line, fingering the five Euro piece in my pocket and ordered one small cone of the warm roasted nuts.
I ate them on the way home, breaking open the shells with my gloved fingers, pulling out the meaty inside with my teeth, savoring their mildly sweet, hearty flavor. There were so many appetizing treats tempting me to make another visit to the Marché de Noël, but that night, the roasted chestnuts were perfect.