What to Eat in France: Dinde Farcie aux Marrons, Turkey Stuffed with Chestnuts
Etre le dindon de la farce. / To fall victim to dupery.
Une dinde. / A stupid, pretentious woman.
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, perhaps France’s best-known gastronomic writer, said that the turkey was certainly one of the most beautiful gifts the New World had given to the Old. “…the fattest, and if not the most delicate, at least, the tastiest of all domesticated birds.” It’s not often that the New World gets such compliments from discerning French epicures.
Turkeys were originally called poules d’Inde, “Indian hens,” in France, because they were thought to have come from India, which they later learned was Mexico. The French were not the only ones to get the name wrong. In Hebrew a turkey is a tarnagol hodu, meaning literally “Indian chicken;” in Russian indiuk, Polish indyk and Yiddish indik.
There is some controversy over who brought turkeys to Europe. Columbus probably brought brought them back in the early sixteenth century, since records show that King Ferdinand had ordered that every ship to bring back ten turkeys before the Spanish explorer Cortés set out in 1519. In any case, by 1548, they were the rage in France. In 1549, Catherine de Medicis served 70 “Indian hens” and 7 “Indian roosters” at a banquet held in honor of the Bishop of Paris.
French aristocrats were accustomed to eating all sorts of feathered creatures, including chewy storks, herons, peacocks, swans, cranes and cormorants, so it wasn’t surprising that they fell in love with the less-chewy turkeys, and that in 1570, Charles IX and Elizabeth of Austria thought turkey noble enough to serve at their wedding feast.
By the seventeenth century, the French were raising turkeys as if they were their own and most cookbooks included turkey recipes. French chefs weren’t lacking in ideas: they made stews and ragouts; they larded, roasted and glazed it; they stuffed it and made it into soups and pâtés.
Marie-Antonin Carême preferred the wings, which he deboned, then stuffed with chicken and truffles. Alexander Dumas, in his Dictionary of Cuisine, included 27 recipes. Turkeys were well established in the Hexagon.
Christmas dinners usually meant lots of mouths to feed, so turkey, being the largest of the winged creatures available, eventually became the dish of choice for Christmas feasts. By the nineteenth century, it became customary to stuff the Christmas turkey with chestnuts, and the tradition continues today.
Dinde farcie aux marrons / Turkey Stuffed with Chestnuts
Most turkeys in France will weigh 5 1/2 to 8 pounds, since they are usually free-range and grain-fed. This recipe is for the what is considered today a small American turkey. If yours is even heavier, simply increase the amount of stuffing you make.
Click here to convert to metric.
1 turkey, 10-12 pounds
2 cups chicken breast, 2-3 medium breasts, depending on the weight
2 pounds forcemeat; this can be pork or veal or a mixture of the two
4 large cloves of garlic
2 large onions
3 large shallots
1 pound brown (or white) mushrooms
4 tablespoons butter
1 bouquet of flat parsley, chopped
1 cup bread, dried and cut into extra-small cubes
1 cup port
1 pound chestnuts, cooked (the vacuum-packed ones work well) and whole
1 tablespoon quatre-épices or a mixture of ground pepper, cloves, nutmeg and ginger
6-8 thin slices of bacon, enough to cover the entire surface of the turkey
- Sautée the chicken breasts until done. Cut into extra-fine bits.
- Preheat oven to 450°F.
- In a large mixing bowl, mix the forcemeat and chicken.
- Chop the garlic, onions, shallots and mushrooms.
- Melt the butter in a saucepan and sautée over medium heat.
- Add sautéed vegetables to the mixing bowl.
- Add the parsley, cubed bread and port. Mix well.
- Add half the chestnuts and the spices. Mix well.
- Stuff the turkey with this mixture. If there is extra stuffing, put it into a baking pan and bake it for the last 35 or 40 minutes of the turkey’s baking time.
- Tie the legs of the turkey together with a string.
- Brush the turkey with cooking oil.
- Lay the bacon slices over the breast to keep it from drying out.
- Place on a roasting tin and put into the oven.
- Lower the heat to 400°C until the breast is brown, about 20 minutes, then reduce heat to 350°F and cover with aluminum foil to keep the breast from burning. Baste every 20 or 25 minutes, using the cooking juices in the bottom of the roasting pan. It will take about 3 or 3 1/2 hours to roast.
- After about 2 1/2 hours, use a blunt knife to gently pull the leg away from the breast and check whether breast is cooked. If so, remove the turkey from the oven and cut off the breasts, keeping them warm by wrapping in aluminum foil. If the breast is not cooked, put the whole turkey back into the oven and repeat this process in about half an hour.
- After about 2 3/4 hours, add the remaining chestnuts to the bottom of the roasting pan. Turn them in the juices from the turkey.
- When the legs are done, remove the turkey.
- Deglaze the pan juices, adding a little water to make gravy.
- Carve the turkey and remove stuffing, serving it in a bowl on the side.
NOTE: Industrial turkeys often take longer to cook than free-range ones. Take this into account in the cooking times given above, which are for a free-range turkey. When checking for doneness, avoid using a fork because it will let the natural juices run out of the turkey. Instead, lift flesh gently with a blunt knife and baste any holes you’ve made well before putting the turkey back into the oven. If your turkey is larger, it will, of course, take longer to cook. Adjust cooking time accordingly. Click here for a turkey cooking time calculator.
This recipe was inspired by Chef Simon.
Jonell Galloway grew up on Wendell Berry and food straight from a backyard Kentucky garden. She is a freelance writer. She attended Le Cordon Bleu and La Varenne cooking schools in Paris and the Académie du Vin, worked for the GaultMillau restaurant guide and CityGuides in France and Paris and for Gannett Company in the U.S., and collaborated on Le tour du monde en 80 pains / Around the World with 80 Breads with Jean-Philippe de Tonnac in France; André Raboud, Sculptures 2002-2009 in Switzerland; Ma Cuisine Méditerranéenne with Christophe Certain in France, At the Table: Food and Family around the World with Ken Albala, and a biography of French chef Pierre Gagnaire. She ran a cooking school in France, and owned a farm-to-table restaurant, The Three Sisters’ Café, with her two sisters in the U.S. She organizes the Taste Unlocked bespoke food and wine tasting awareness workshops with James Flewellen, is an active member of Slow Food, and runs the food writing website The Rambling Epicure. Her work has been published in numerous international publications and she has been interviewed on international public radio in France, Switzerland, and the U.S. She has just signed on at In Search of Taste, a British print publication, and is now working on two books, The French and What They Eat and What to Eat in Venice.