When I think of French tradition, I usually think of something ancient, quaint, inherited from past generations.
But a tradition that only dates back to 1994?
Yet that’s exactly what happened with Lou Pisadou, a sweet chestnut cake that is now the pride of patissiers all over the Ardèche, that mountainous province of south-central France best-known for its chestnuts and deep gorges.
It was an odd situation. Despite producing half of France’s chestnuts, the Ardèche had no such thing as a traditional chestnut-based pastry.
“We wanted to strengthen our links with tradition and highlight the Ardèche’s culinary treasures, so we decided to get together and create one,” said Yvan Beaudoin, the former president of the provincial pastry chefs’ association.
And they did. In 1994 a small group of pastry chefs huddled in the cooking lab of a local training center, each chef presenting the group with a creation. They tasted and compared and discussed, narrowing down the options. They had stringent criteria: local organic produce had to be used, the end product should be easy to carry (so tourists could take one home), and it should of course be of high quality.
And so Lou Pisadou was born, named after an ancient metal-pronged tool used to break the chestnut’s skin and make it easier to peel.
“We had to tweak the recipe a bit,” Mr Beaudoin said, “the first one was too sweet. By putting in chunks of chestnuts, we brought the sweetness down a notch.”
It is still sweet but it’s a tart, fresh sweetness that comes from mixing crunchy bits of chestnut, a velvety almond cream and a biscuity crust. The perfect word for it is – smooth. I planned on having a single slice but ended up eating half the pie.
Lou Pisadou is just one of the Ardèche’s many chestnut specialties: this little nut is amazingly versatile. In the space of a single weekend – the weekend of the Castagnades, or sweet chestnut festival, in the village of Antraigues – I was able to sample all of these: roast chestnuts, marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), chestnut cream, chestnut jam, chestnut soup, chestnut cake, chestnut ice cream – and of course, Lou Pisadou. (I didn’t taste the chestnut beer, chestnut liqueur, chestnut bread or the semolina.)
Today you’ll find Lou Pisadou across the Ardèche, in about 30 pastry shops and in markets and fairs. And 17,000 people can’t be wrong, because that’s how many of these amazing cakes were sold last year.
Mr Beaudoin wouldn’t give me the exact recipe because it’s protected – only those pastry chefs who agree to follow strict production guidelines can sell this cake.
Lou Pisadou may be new, but then, so was every tradition at first.
A few generations from now it too will be ancient, quaint, and inherited from past generations.
What every Woman on the Road should know
- The Ardèche is a beautiful and rugged rural département, reached through Valence (south of Lyon) by car or train.
- You can get your own Pisadou from Mr Beaudoin’s pastry shop at 98 rue Jean Jaurès in Vals-les-Bains.
- Stay at the wonderful Villa Aimée, a top-rated Gîte de France, or country residence. It’s run by an Australian called Leila Joy Bertrand (it was strange having someone share my name – I’m not used to it!) who knows everything there is to know about her corner of the world and can tell you all about it in English, a relief if your French is less than fluent.
- Vals-les-Bains is a reputed spa town whose sparkling water is known throughout France and whose thermal baths have affordable treatments ranging from a single day to the full three-week medical treatment the country is known for.