In front of a stand heaped with marrons glacés in a renowned Piedmontese pastry shop, my friends are excited by how good they look.
I point out that the white patina coating them means that they haven’t been iced properly, or that they were made too long ago.
No one reacts and we make our order.
I’m served a marron glacé in its typical fluted paper case.
It’s hard to the touch and the sugar has formed a fine whitish coating.
To be fair, it’s still quite soft inside, but the sugary flavour overwhelms the aroma of the fruit.
Score out of ten: eight and a half.
Three tens from my friends and a four from me.
Marrons glacé and pastries passed with full marks!
The power of arithmetic means.
In the days following that experience I found out more.
After being left to steep in water for nine days (a period known in the trade as the novena), the chestnut is ready to be transformed into a marron glacé: first it has to be peeled, then it’s cooked, candied and, finally, iced.
The whole process, novena excluded, takes about a week.
‘About’ is the secret ingredient of the great master confectioners, the one that makes the difference between an outstanding sweet and a mediocre one.
It – ‘about’ – encapsulates experience, errors, passion, and knowledge of details and ingredients.
The chestnuts are peeled raw by making cuts in them and steaming them to soften the skin. They are then cooked in boiling water for more than two hours and candied in receptacles filled with syrup.
The syrup, consisting of water, sugar and vanilla, is warmed daily for about a week so that it penetrates the fruit and completes the candying process.
The chestnuts are then iced in the oven with syrup and icing sugar.
A perfect marron glacé
A great confectioner taught me that marrons glacés take a long time and are complex to make, but that when this is done with skilled hands the results are extraordinary.
He never tired of explaining that a marron glacé should be glossy and dry outside and soft inside.
It shouldn’t be hard to bite into and it should melt in the mouth.
There should be perfect balance between the sweetness of the sugar and the flavour of the fruit.
The ingredients should come from specific areas: not all chestnuts are suitable for icing.
In Piedmont, the PGI chestnuts of the Susa Valley, near Turin, and the PGI chestnuts of Cuneo are particularly prized.
It’s Cuneo, in fact, that contends the merit of inventing this exceptional sweet with Lyon, on the other side of the Alps.
Careless palates v. Discerning gastronomes
In our ‘ready-in-minutes’ era, there are few confectioners left who still perform every stage in the preparation of marrons glacés by themselves.
Many buy the chestnuts pre-peeled, cooked and candied by the agrifood industry and limit themselves to adding the final icing.
It’s thus possible to produce marrons glacés that are ready for sale in a single day.
This translates into loss of knowledge and the skills needed for the most complex preparations, hence to the standardization of flavours.
Anyone who has been lucky enough to taste all-artisan marrons glacés or to have fun creating their own are fully aware of the difference.
It’s up to us to ask anyone selling us a marron glacé, how they make it, what variety of fruit they use, whether they only use sugar and vanilla in the candying process, how they go about the icing, whether they peel the chestnuts raw or cooked, whether they use fresh fruit or frozen and so on.
Conscious of all the work involved in making the sweet, the true master artisans will proudly tell of their passion and commitment, and the gastronome will be rewarded with flavour and knowledge.