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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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