French Flavours #2: B is for lou Bajanac

Chestnuts in the wild

Chestnuts in the wild

In my A-Z of traditional French recipes, I’m trying to focus on those that originated in southwest France, where we live. So I’ve eschewed boeuf à la Bourgignonne or blanquette de veau, delicious though they are. Surprisingly, I found a dearth of Bs down here, until I came across an ancient Aveyronnais recipe that is comfortingly easy to make. But what is lou Bajanac? A clue is in the photo above.

Occitan lesson

First, an admission of ignorance. To start with, I thought that ‘lou’ was a person’s name, an abbreviation of Louis, perhaps? On holiday, we even dined in a restaurant in Périgueux called Lou Chabròl, which I assumed was le patron’s name. Wrong.

It’s much simpler than that. ‘Lou’ is Occitan for the definite article ‘the’. And faire le chabròl (or chabrot as it is down here), is the custom of pouring wine into the dregs of the soup and drinking it straight from the soup plate.

Important staple food

Marrons de Laguépie - one of the 100 or so varieties

Marrons de Laguépie – one of the 100 or so varieties

So, having cleared that up, let’s move on to lou Bajanac. This is a soup made of dried sweet chestnuts, milk and water. Chestnuts were once an important staple food in this region. Chestnut flour was used instead of wheat or rye to make bread.

Chestnut trees won’t grow happily where we live, but a few kilometres eastwards they are a common feature in the landscape. Around Najac and Laguépie, the slopes are clothed with the trees. Laguépie was once an important centre of the chestnut trade and, in the 19th and early 20th centuries, trainloads of the nuts were shipped to Paris and beyond. Laguépie still holds an annual chestnut fair to celebrate this once significant trade. 

Si tu as du vin nouveau et des châtaignes, tu n’es pas à plaindre. If you’ve got new wine and chestnuts, you’re not to be pitied.

Grilling chestnuts at the Laguépie foire à la châtaigne

Grilling chestnuts at the Laguépie foire à la châtaigne

The countryside is dotted with the vestiges of chestnut cultivation. For the most part, the chestnut plantations (châtaigneraies) are abandoned and no longer managed. They are littered with dead branches and choked with undergrowth. Formerly, they were kept scrupulously tidy.

On our autumn walks, the paths are strewn with the nuts, still in their spiny casings. They are there for the picking. In places, you can still see séchoirs (sécadous in Occitan), the small buildings where the nuts were dried for three weeks over fires of chestnut leaves.

Chestnut cuisine

Chestnut products

Chestnut products

Chestnuts were used in various ways in cooking. There’s even a chestnut liqueur with which you can make kir à la châtaigne, with the addition of white wine. It has an unusual flavour: sweet, but not cloyingly so, with a tarter aftertaste.

One of the simpler dishes was lou Bajanac – simpler, that is, once you’ve peeled the chestnuts, dried them and removed what’s left of the papery skins. The chestnut does not give up its bounty without a fight.

As ever, the origins of the word are debatable, but it may come from the Latin baca (a berry) which was later transformed into bajana (to cook vegetables in water). This dish was particularly common in the Cévennes (where it was called bajanado) and the Rouergue.

Lou Bajanac recipe

Serves 6, traditionally as a starter

Unless you are really patient, I don’t advise going through all the business with the peeling and drying of the chestnuts. You can probably buy vacuum-packed dried chestnuts. If you can’t find those, tinned chestnuts are available, but avoid chestnuts in syrup or purée, which are sweetened.

500 g dried chestnuts
1 litre of milk (whole milk, preferably. Formerly, this would have been goat’s or sheep’s milk)
1 litre of water

Simmer all the ingredients for 1 – 1 ½ hours until the chestnuts are soft. Sieve the soup to remove the remaining papery secondary skin. Liquidise the soup if you like it smoother. Add salt and pepper to taste if you wish. Serve hot.

You can, of course, add other ingredients to liven it up, such as onions or grated cheese on top, but then it won’t be the authentic dish.

You might also like:

Chestnut Fair at Laguépie
Chestnuts and Chestnut Recipes
Walking the Viaur Valley

Chestnuts

Chestnuts

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About nessafrance

My husband and I moved to an 18th-century farmhouse in SW France in 1997. I am fascinated by French history, rural traditions and customs and enjoy seeking out the reality behind the myths. I run my own copywriting business and write short stories and the occasional novel in my spare time. My husband appears here as the SF, which stands for Statistics Freak, owing to his penchant for recording numbers about everything.
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8 Responses to French Flavours #2: B is for lou Bajanac

  1. Now there’s spooky! I was sorting through my paperbacks today (a necessary task every spring as the deluge threatens to become a flood!) and came across ‘celestine’, a book i read about 20 years ago. The author bought a house near chateauroux and writes about life in the area going back many years. I was reminded of it the last time you wrote about chestnuts as she points out the importance of the chestnut trees in the past eg making shingles for roofs, bedding for pigs and for flour. I couldn’t remember the book’s name or its whereabouts. Today i find it and you write about chestnuts again! Lovely recipe, now can i buy a tin without guilt when an autumn walk locally would yield an abundance?

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      Now, that is a coincidence. Sounds like an interesting book. The chestnut tree had many uses, not just culinary. I’m afraid that, although we could also pick up chestnuts locally, I take the line of least resistance and use the tinned variety.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Osyth says:

    I am absolutely NOT allowing the husband near this recipe. He has recently decided that since our little Maison Secondaire-to-be (when it stops being la Maison Catastrophe) is in la Châtaigneraie Cantalienne that we must learn to dry and peel chestnuts and grind them for our own chestnut flour. I personally feel my life may be too short for this …. but the recipe looks delectable and right up our street and the backhistory of all things Châtaigne has been a most pleasant interlude for which I thoroughly thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      I really think life is too short to grind one’s own chestnut flour – although we did meet a lady in Corsica who has her own mini chestnut mill and does just that. It seems a very simple recipe that I really must try.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. What an interesting and simple looking soup. Certainly once we have fresh chestnuts here again next autumn I shall be making this. We always have an abundance and I am always wondering what to do with them all. I shall bookmark this and keep it, thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • nessafrance says:

      There are many recipes for chestnuts, but this seemed one of the simpler ones. I haven’t tried this recipe myself but look forward to doing so.

      Like

  4. Anne Grose says:

    This looks like a recipe I shall try next October when we are knee deep in our chestnuts. I found it way too hard this year (having become French) to walk past free food, so collected loads of nuts in our lane. I have fab recipes for Chestnut and Red Wine pate, chestnut loaf and others but obviously, need loads more recipes.

    One fascinating fact you forgot to mention is that Castanet – where we live – is named after the Chestnut groves that completely surround the village.

    Liked by 1 person

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