Castaña is Spanish for chestnut, a familiar nut with a singular smeared and floury taste. Sweet or savoury, chestnuts are very distinctive; an acquired taste like asparagus, anything caprine and pomegranates. I love them candied, cooked with game, ground, distilled, fried or simply roasted in their shiny shells. They smell of the earth, chthonic. Despite growing on trees, they seem more correct on the ground amid leaf litter and the colours of autumn.
I have a very specific memory of roasted chestnuts linked to a miserable night in Paris as a student in the early 90s. I was an early manny and as such, part of a vast network of often unpaid naïve student slave labour, expected to appreciate the glamour of the city and the experiences being somewhat grudgingly extended to us and yet work ridiculous and demanding hours.
My friend C and I didn’t go home that Christmas and the guy I’d been seeing brushed me off like snow on his shoulder. We lived off Boursin, horribly cheap wine in plastic bottles, baguette and C’s miraculous garlic-laden macaroni cheese she managed to conjure up on a hot plate in her little room. God knows where our money went. We look amazing in the photos, so on clothes, booze and cigarettes I guess.
One evening we were in the Marais, after a few hours of pastis on a chilled terrace, wandering the Place des Vosges, one of our favourite places, vibrant by day, shadowed and eerie at night. It was drizzling and the streets were mobbed with shoppers, bags crashing into us as we moaned to each other, over-dramatising as only petulant, slightly pissed English students could. I was never dressed properly for any weather, thin t-shirts, ripped jeans and a cricket sweater that had seen better days. More rent than tourist. I’m sure it was all horribly deliberate. The photos demonstrate a smug knowingness I hardly recognise now. I always had a fag in my hand no matter what the weather.
Everywhere we wandered, peering in at windows and dodging manic cars and raging klaxons, we could smell roasted chestnuts. It’s a very distinctive smell, unlike anything else, soft and inviting, wrapped in milky smoke. The little Dickensian stands emitted its heat and glow into the saturated evening. I wanted some, badly. The smell made my stomach howl. The marchand des chataignes was from Marseilles, his singsong accent, blurring his vowels like Mireille Matthieu. I remember begging him for two bags as I only had enough for one. Whatever I said worked, he waved his black-smutted hands at me and muttered joyeux noel…smiling through the rain. I shouted joyeux noel back and ran to find C, who was standing in a doorway, angrily trying to light a crooked damp cigarette.
The smell of those sweet hot chestnuts, split and crisp, reeking of the newspaper cones the seller had made himself has stayed with me forever. Ink and floured nuttiness, sugared starch, but most of all, a scent of streets, of lights and rain, traffic fumes and exhaustion. I am very wary about eating roast chestnuts now. I see the vendors, smell the whiff of cracking burnt shell, the ooze of sweet inside. But I’m not sure I want to actually rekindle that particular memory. We walked for miles as we always did, Rue de Rivoli, Louvre, Chatelet, Gare de Lyon, Bastille, back to our rooms. In the morning I remember my fingers smelled of fire and sugar, the smudged newspaper tossed across the floor near my crumpled Gitanes.
I have cooked with chestnuts since, stuffed partridge with them, pan-fried them with sprouts, maple syrup and walnuts, made a sauce with them, mixed with prunes and Armagnac and poured it over venison. And I’m anyone’s pretty much for a quality marron glacé… If you told me I had a rare disorder which meant I had to spend the end of my days living off marrons glacés and honeydew melon, I would be a very happy Fox.
However as a fragrance note is rare enough to stand out. Strange really, because it is a very distinctive note, warm and sugared, floury and woody-soft. They taste like they look. Snug and golden. There are hints of saffron, patisserie, spiced apple, sweet potato and artichoke. The texture is glutinous and dry, powdered and strangely sherbety. There are a few rather unusual perfumes that have taken chestnuts as a theme and done lovely things with them. Betrand Duchaufour has been creating perfumes for the Sersale Family at the Hotel Sirenuse on the Amalfi coast for a number of years now. I am huge fan of his hot, terracotta-infused Paestum Rose. But his melancholic and comforting Sienne L’Hiver is layered with notes of the earth: truffles, leaves, straw, coal roasted chestnuts, violet, woods and musks. The elements of wandering through forests, of trying to lose oneself, kicking at the ground, all around the odours of autumn descend and infiltrate the senses.
The other one is Aqua di Casta by Testa Maura, created by Corsican perfumer Xavier Torre. These are really beautiful intense fragrances, made with true passion and desire. Carticasi is another one, a profoundly resinous floral with ylang and rose but tempered with the weird brittle snap of mastic. Wonderful. Aqua di Casta is a homage to the chestnut trees of the Castagniccia Corsican highlands. Blended with pepper, wood and ginger it is a dry sun-swept scent, filled with the rustle of leaves and sound of coruscating summer winds.