We celebrated Christmas day with Renaissance Man, Glasgow Girl and Mousey. I was so excited to be able to bring the dessert, a Mont Blanc, and had readied the ingredients days in advance. Rumpole cautioned me to phone ahead to find out if such a dessert might be welcome. “You know how Glasgow Girl is weird about food; she may not like this dessert, and all your labours will be for naught.” He did have a good point. Glasgow Girl hates nuts, and chestnuts are nuts, even if somewhat unusual ones. Naturally, she said, Thanks, but no, thanks. So there went that plan to provide pleasure for RM and a new treat discovery for Mousey. I was temporarily disappointed, but then realized that there are more Christmases ahead in the future, so one of these years I can make this for them.
Martha had invited Rumpole and me to a Boxing day celebration with her son, Davide, cousin Etienne, brother Richard and his wife Louise. Rumpole said to Martha, “We will bring a Mont Blanc to dinner as dessert.”
So, after we returned from Christmas dinner with RM, GG and Mousey where Mousey had been wild with enthusiasm for the poached pears I had provided for dessert, Rumpole and I began preparing the chestnuts after donning our pjs and housecoats. He wielded the small sharp knife and cut crosses in the flat sides of the chestnuts. He worked so hard that he wore through the skin of his guitar picking forefinger. “I hope this heals by time for the New Year’s gig,” he moaned. “How do I explain being a disabled bass player?”
“Just say to the guys in the band ‘I got injured in Operation Dessert Storm’,” I giggled, choking on my tea. “Surely they can relate to helping your wife in elaborate kitchen preparations.”
There sure were a lot of chestnuts in the pile, but he did a yeoman’s job of crossing their bottoms with little Xs. At One a.m. we staggered off to bed, after Rumpole bandaged his finger with a bandaid.
Boxing Day morning, while many citizens were lined up at Future Shop and Best Buy for the big sales, we began our culinary labours. While I made coffee, Rumpole set the chestnuts ,covered in water, to boil on the stove. Then while he sipped his morning cup, I began to hull the chestnuts. man, was this laborious. My left thumb became, sore, then numb. But the pile of naked nuggets grew, and we sampled them for taste. Yum, but still needing further cooking.
“Do we have two quarts of milk?” I asked Rumpole. “Please check in the fridge.”
“There’s only a quart,” he replied after checking. ” I’ll run out and get some more.”
I still had half a big pot of chestnuts to shuck, so as he left to get more milk, I continued to make inroads on the never ending pile. By the time he got back with the milk, there were still a couple of handfuls of chestnuts to strip. Once those were finished, he poured the mik to cover the chestnuts, and set them to heat on the stove. We drank another cup of coffee as we waited.
“What’s the next step?” asked Rumpole while I cast a critical eye on the pot to make sure the milk didn’t boil over.
“Check the recipe, and tell me what needs to be done next,” I said to him.
“We need to make a syrup of sugar and water, next, to cook the chestnuts further.” He brought out the sugar and measured the right amount of sugar and water in a big glass measuring cup. He heated it in the microwave to make a solution.
While I went off to dress, he decanted the milk from the simmered chestnuts, after tasting for doneness, and poured the syrup onto them and set them to cook and reduce the liquid. That took a good half hour.
Then he watched with interest as I poured in a splash of Kirsch, a spoonful of vanilla. He crumbled the almond paste over top and let the whole mess cool. Meanwhile, I fished out my German, hand-cranked food mill, assembled the parts and set it over a bowl for the next phase of production. Rumpole inspected the food mill and admired its simple workings. “This is like something my Mother would have used – really old-fashioned.” He gave it a few turnings, and announced, “How simple and effective this is, – amazing.” We waited for the chestnuts to cool.
For the next hour, I cranked the chestnuts and almond paste through the mill, twice, and with the second pass through the finer extruder built up the mountain on a shallow crystal bowl. Rumpole hovered and tasted. He said it was heavenly. I had worked up a good sweat from the milling, and went off to have a shower. He covered the mountain and put it into the fridge to chill. He grated chocolate shavings and packaged them into a covered bowl.
Soon, we were ready to drive to Martha’s house. Rumpole carried the mountain out to the car, with infinite care. I snagged the Whipped Cream from the fridge, and took a thimble full of Kirsch to fortify myself, and locked up the house.
At Martha’s, Rumpole carried our offering into her house. Company had assembled. Martha’s Jack Russel terrier, Murtaugh, and Richard and Louise’s large old Shepherd, Bogart, milled around looking for food they could smell but couldn’t access.
Dinner was fabulous; the company of friends, scintillating. We told stories. Martha and her brother, Richard, are great raconteurs; very entertaining. There was much laughter at the table. The dogs, hovered, looking for hand-outs. In inimitable Martha fashion, she had once again outdone herself as a hostess, and had provided a feast not only for the senses but also for companionship.
I dressed the chestnut mountain with whipped cream and chocolate shavings. Martha did the honours and scooped spoonfuls onto the tiny Japanese dishes with chestnut leaf decorations. Richard, Louise and Martha had never before eaten chestnuts. But, Etienne exclaimed, “Ah, creme de marrons – heaven!” (He had been a server at one of Vancouver’s finest restaurants before retirement.) “If there are any left-over of this, I want them to take,” he purred as he took a third helping. Rumpole and I had small helpings; we had laboured so hard at producing this dessert that neither of us felt like eating more then a tiny portion. The mountain disappeared; only a couple of spoonfuls were left. We repaired to the living room and sprawled, sated and watched a really bad James Bond movie starring Roger Moore. It was the one with the interminable chase scenes on cigar boats in the bayoux of southern Florida. This movie was not exactly conducive to good digestion, but it provided an occasion for some wicked movie critiques from the men.
We had a lovely evening together. On the way to drive Etienne to the Sky Train station, Rumpole expressed how much fun he had being a part of dinner preparation, even though the process was so labour intensive and resulted in war wounds.
“But, then, it was really ‘Operation Dessert Storm’, and surely injuries are par for the course,” he chuckled.