Gateway to the Classics: The Secret of Everyday Things by Jean Henri Fabre
The Secret of Everyday Things by  Jean Henri Fabre


"I HAVE explained to you what ingredients flour should contain to make it suitable for bread. It must have both gluten and starch. All flours are rich in starch, but very few possess gluten, so valuable for its highly nutritive qualities and its peculiarity of expanding in delicate membranous tissues when the dough ferments. You have not forgotten that the carbonic acid gas generated by fermentation remains imprisoned in the dough, held in confinement by the gluten, and so causes the formation of innumerable empty spaces or tiny cells which should be found in all bread worthy of the name. If gluten is lacking, these eyes also are lacking, and the dough makes nothing but a dense cake wholly unworthy of the name of bread. Well, rice and maize both furnish very white flour pleasing to the eye but deficient in one essential: it has no gluten. For that reason neither rice nor maize will make good bread, in spite of the fine appearance of their flour.

"Sometimes maize is used for making what are called corn pones, which well illustrate the difference between bread made of wheat and bread made of a flour containing no gluten. These cakes have a crisp crust that is very good to look at, but their taste does not correspond with their inviting appearance. They are but coarse, indigestible eating, and after a few mouthfuls you will be glad to desist unless you have a very strong stomach. I class the deceptively inviting corn pone in the same category with barley bread, or even below it. But, as I have explained in one of our former talks, maize has its uses as a wholesome food among the farmers who raise it and whose active outdoor life enables them to digest coarse fare."

"I see more clearly every day," said Claire, "that all those foreign grains, from Asia and from America, are far inferior to our wheat."

"I'd rather have a slice of bread, any time," declared Emile, "than all the hasty pudding or porridge or boiled rice you could offer me."

"Even without any butter on it?" his uncle asked.

"Yes, even without butter."

"I am very glad our talks are leading you to value bread at its true worth. If we were obliged to do without it now that we have become used to this incomparable food, you may well believe it would be the severest of privations.

"Your mention of hasty pudding reminds me of another well-known porridge called polenta,  the national dish of Corsica and part of Italy. It is made of chestnut flour. Let us first say a few words about the tree that produces these delicious nuts, which you all like so much either boiled or roasted.

"The chestnut is a tree that lives to a great age and attains enormous dimensions. In our mountainous districts I have seen some with trunks four meters in circumference, and the trees must have been from three to four centuries old. One of these giants would be enough to shade my whole garden. The largest tree in the world is a chestnut growing on the slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily. It is called the chestnut of a hundred horses, because Jeanne, Queen of Aragon, visiting the volcano one day and overtaken by a storm, sought refuge under it with her escort of a hundred cavaliers. Under its forest of foliage both riders and steeds found ample shelter. To encircle the giant thirty persons with outstretched arms and joined hands would not be enough; the circumference of the trunk measures in fact more than fifty meters. In its immense size it is more like a fortress or tower than the trunk of a tree. An opening large enough to permit two carriages to pass abreast tunnels its base and gives access to the cavity of the trunk, which is arranged as a dwelling for the use of those who come to gather the chestnuts; for the old Colossus, whose age runs into the centuries, still has young sap and seldom fails to bear."


Flowering Branch and Fruit of Chestnut Tree

"This prodigious tree must produce a mountain of chestnuts," observed Jules.

"I imagine one year's harvest would be enough to satisfy all of you for a long time."

"We should never see the last of them," Emile assented, "for there would be sacks and sacks of nuts—more than all the boys and girls around here could eat in a year."

Uncle Paul went on with his talk: "Chestnuts are enclosed in a husk bristling with long prickles and opening at maturity in the autumn to let the nuts fall out. There are three or four in each husk or bur. A kind of chestnut remarkable for its size and quality is known as the large French chestnut; it comes to us chiefly from the vicinity of Lyons. You must not confound the edible chestnut with that of another tree called the horse-chestnut, a tree that is often planted for ornament in parks and along streets and public promenades. Horse-chestnuts have all the appearance of the finest edible chestnuts, and are also contained in a thorny husk; but this resemblance ends with the outside, horse-chestnuts being insufferably bitter in taste and absolutely worthless as food.

"White chestnuts, or chestnuts stripped of their shells and inner skins and dried for keeping throughout the year, are obtained in the following manner. On large screens extending from end to end of a long room chestnuts are spread by the hundredweight, and under them there is lighted a fire which produces a great deal of smoke. As soon as they are well dried the nuts are put into sacks, beaten with sticks, and vigorously shaken. By this heating and shaking the shells, which have been rendered very friable by the heat and smoke, are broken into little pieces. Chestnuts prepared in this way are used boiled in water, or sometimes they are ground into flour at the mill. This flour, mixed with water and cooked over the fire for some time, gives the porridge called polenta."

"I have never tasted polenta," said Claire, "but I presume it isn't as good as fresh chestnuts roasted on the stove or simply boiled. The white, dry chestnuts you speak of are not equal to them, either."

"But they have the great advantage of keeping all the year round, while fresh chestnuts spoil in a few months."

"When chestnuts are being roasted in the hot ashes or on the stove, they sometimes burst with a loud noise and scatter the hot meat in all directions. It 's funny to hear these little bombs, but I 'm always afraid for my eyes. Why do chestnuts burst like that and jump off the stove?"

"Fresh chestnuts, like all undried fruit, contain a little water, or moisture. The heat of the fire turns this water into steam, which, being held captive by the tough shell and having no outlet, keeps trying to escape, until at last the overstrained shell breaks and with a rush the steam bursts out with a loud report through the rents, carrying with it torn fragments of the chestnut. To prevent these explosions, which waste the chestnuts by ripping them open so violently, and are, besides, not without danger to the eyes of those present, it is well to make an opening for the steam so that it can get out as fast as it forms, without gaining force by accumulating. This is done by making an incision in the shell of the chestnut with the point of a knife, or by cutting away a small piece of the shell. Then the steam has an open door by which to escape, and the chestnuts no longer burst while they are on the fire."

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