Memory – It is December. I am eight years old and am carrying my violin case while walking with Apu to my evening half-hour violin lesson. Stalin Utca is covered by a layer of freshly fallen dry snow; our footsteps squeak as we walk along. Apu smokes a cigarette; in the cold air he sends up great plumes of breath, like a tall dragon. Like a baby dragon, but one weighted down with a hard violin-case, I belch little plumes of moist breath as I struggle to keep up with him. Apu is accompanying me instead of Anyu for the violin lesson tonight. He will sit in while the teacher, Mr. Peterfi, puts me through my paces. Anyu does not do this; she always sits in the waiting room to keep a closed door between my schreeching sawings at the violin and her ears.
Soon, the smell of roasting chestnuts permeates the crisp night air. Up ahead is a man, swaddled up in a cloth coat, standing by a brazier of burning coals. He rubs his mittened hands together and gives the perforated iron roaster a couple of shakes. Apu strides up to him, takes a deep appreciative snort, turns back and asks. “Gabi, do you want some?” I nod, yes, and watch the man as he lifts the lid and scoops a ladleful of split, steaming dark-brown nuggets into a folded twist of newspaper. He hands me this, as Apu seaches in his pockets for a couple of forints. The exhange made, we fish a couple of chestnuts out and begin to strip the scorched skins away from what we know is a delicious treat. This seasonal delicacy is only available at the beginning of winter. Forever after, smooth feel of chestnuts’ outer skins, the hairy nap of the inner skin, the scent of them roasting, the heat of them in the palms and the undescribable deliciousness, I will always associate with this time of year.
Its 1974. Renaissance Man is four years old. We live up north in a little town where I teach high school to support us. We have a routine on Friday evenings. After coming home from school and day-care, we eat dinner, then, depending on weather conditions we either walk downtown towing RM’s red wagon, four blocks away from our basement apartment, or, if there is snow on the ground, I pull RM on his little sled. This is our weekly provisioning foray to Safeway which is the only big grocery store in town.
Outside the store, we leave the particular vehicle parked by the front entrance, and walk about inspecting and selecting from whatever fruit and vegetables, staples and meats are available. Around the end of November, the Japanese oranges suddenly arrive in the store. RM loves these and happily bags some after carefully unwrapping each green tissue-paper wrapped orange. Then on an early December shopping trip, we come upon a bin of shiny dark brown conkers. This is a huge surprise to me. Chestnuts, with their flat bottoms and curving mounded bodies, the little point at one end, the slightly lighter colour of the skin at the kernel end. He has never before seen these, and is instantly fascinated. We run our hands through the bin. He picks one up and sniffs at it.
“Are these food?” he asks. “It doesn’t smell like anything. What are these?”
“Chestnuts,” I say. “They are the seeds of big trees. They taste very good, but only when they have been roasted or boiled. Do you want me to get some so you could try eating them?”
“Let’s get some. Have you eaten these before, Mom?” He starts to select some and places them into a paper sack.
Slightly distracted with calculating just how much these might cost, because the cost per pound listed is so high, I take some time to answer him. “These were my favourite thing to eat in the wintertime when I was your age. I was always so excited when they came into season. You’ll just have to try them and see if you also like them.” I scoop more chestnuts into the bag, figuring that we can try to roast them, and maybe I can make us that very special, my absolute favourite, way of eating chestnuts – as gesztenye pure (pureed chestnuts) made into a dessert like little mountains with whipped cream and chocolate shavings, what Anyu always called Mont Blanc whenever she had made it for us on winter occasions.
After we finish our shopping, RM is too tired to walk home in the snow. He sits in his sled and hangs onto the few paper sacks containing our weekly food. I pull him him home. He sits back, a small snow-suit clad pasha, and sings as we go along on the snow covered sidewalk. I am ruminating about how I plan to prepare the chestnut puree tomorrow.
Later on, after RM has gone to bed, I take out my dog-eared copy of “The Joy of Cooking”, my cooking Bible. Sure enough, there is a section on how to prepare chestnuts to make puree. It seems really involved and time-consuming. It also requires one to have as an addition sweetened almond paste amd Kirsch. I read the instructions and determine that tomorrow we will have to go back downtown to get the almond paste and Kirsch.
The next morning, Saturday, we get an early start to head back downtown to get these two ingredients. Safeway has almond paste; the liquor store next door has no Kirsch. So Cointreau has to do as a substitute. To buy a whole bottle of Cointreau for a couple of tablespoons needed for the recipe seems a waste of money. I decide, the small bottle I buy will do as a little treat for visiting friends during December. Back home we schlep through snow.
At home, as RM goes off to build some sort of construction in his room, I begin to simmer the chestnuts in water for a couple of hours, then take off the softened outer skins. The inner hairy membrane refuses to come off. Back go the chestnuts into milk this time to be simmered for yet another hour. RM comes to the kitchen and asks why its taking so long to get this treat ready. We decant the milk from the chestnuts, let them cool, and begin the unpleasant process of pulling the hairy membranes from them. He gives up after a while and lets me finish this by myself.
According to “The Joy of Cooking”, one is supposed to take the softened cooked chestnuts, pass them through the fine sieve of a food mill, then mix in the almond paste, add the Kirsch and then, pass the whole thing through the food mill twice more. After the second milling, one is to let the puree tendrils snake onto a plate and form a mountain. My problem is that I don’t have a food mill in my kitchen. On the other, hand, I do possess a metal sieve. That has to do as a stand in. I spend the next hour patiently scraping the ingredients through a sieve with a rubber spatula. This is hard work, very laborious. I have sudden appreciation for Anyu’s kitchen prowess and labours to provide delicious food to our family throughout the years. My mountain of puree grows by very slow increments. By late afternoon, it’s getting dark, and I have exhausted my enthusiasm for cooking, and RM needs Dinner. It will have to be grilled cheese sandwiches tonight, followed by a fabulous dessert of Mont Blanc and an orange.
Rm comes back to the kitchen and watches as I make the grilled cheese sandwiches, and between turnings of these from one side to the other attack cream with the rotary hand beaters. I ask him to grate a bar of Jersey Milk chocolate. We top the mountain of chestnut puree with whipped cream. He sprinkles chocolate shavings on to decorate it. Our wonderful dessert is ready.
We make short work of eating the grilled cheese sandwiches, both of us eager to get to the high spot of tonight’s menu.
Finally, it is time to ruin the mountain, dig out a portion, test it on the tongue and declare it the most wonderful dessert to be had. RM does the honours. He sticks his spoon into the mound, tastes, looks very serious. Is he going to like this, or say it’s awful? I watch him with great anticipation. He starts to grin. “This is sooo good. Can I have a lot of it to eat?”
I did eventually buy a manual food mill in the German deli downtown. This winter, the food mill is 33 years old, still serviceable. It has done yeoman service to make “Mont Blanc” for us at Christmastime during the years. It’s chestnut season right now. Almond paste is also commonly available for Christmas baking. I plan to make a “Mont Blanc” as a surprise for Christmas dinner. Renaissance man will be delighted, and maybe Glasgow Girl will be encouraged to take over a tradition of treating her family to this delicious food-stuff. I suspect the gods on Mount Olympus also feasted on a similar dish in the cold of a winter’s night. It is a dish fit for the gods!