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D - 34: Chestnuts - Food for Poor People?

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

Most people who holiday in Corsica associate the island with beauty, sun, sea, rocks and maybe some rosé. But hardly anybody associates it with chestnut. Remember when I mentioned in blog D – 54 (Corsican cuisine) that the Genovese rulers made the locals plant a chestnut, an olive, a mulberry and a fig tree every year? Corsica thus has plenty. It has one of the highest concentrations of chestnut trees in the world.

Chestnuts – once Corsica’s staple food

Sometimes I wonder how I stumble into an interesting subject like chestnuts. The reason is Chantrou, the farmhouse in the Ardèche. It was surrounded by mighty chestnut trees 20 years ago before the chestnut fungus struck. With heavy heart, Ahmed and I had to cut them down. The Ardèche in the Cevennes is still at the heart of France’s chestnut industry and has its own AOC label “Chataigne d’Ardèche”. It is one of the few places where you can not only buy Marron Glacé but chestnut flour, chestnut pasta, chestnut liquor, chestnut purée and more. We talk about this a bit later.

Chestnut trees love mineral rich soils like weathered granites which drain well, love the sun, require considerable amounts of water, don’t mind frosty winters and grow usually in altitudes between 200 m – 800 m. The geography and geology make both Corsica and the Ardèche ideal chestnut territory. The trees do not grow on chalky grounds.

Chestnut cultivation and forests in France as of today

Chestnut trees are multi-purpose plants. Not only do they produce delicious fruits, they also prevent slope erosion thanks to their high water consumption, the nuts feed pigs which results in wonderful pork meat, they provide lush shade during the hot summers and their timber is a fabulous material to build and make furniture from. Young chestnut wood has the same strength as oak and needs almost no maintenance. Roofs in the Ardèche and Corsica are usually built with chestnut beams. It is also an ideal hard wood. My beds, tables and wardrobes are all made from chestnut and Monsieur Dubois, my carpenter, knows exactly how to work with. It is a beautiful material. It is also the perfect wood for your fireplace. Big logs burn slowly and provide a lot of heat and glow. There is nothing better than making Côte de Boeuf on open fire with chestnut logs. It beats any grill – even the most sophisticated! The locals tell me that in the past there was a leather industry using the chestnuts’ tannin but this trade disappeared before I arrived in the early 1990ies.

A hamlet in Corsica surrounded by chestnut trees – you could take the same picture in the Ardèche and would not know the difference

Let’s talk a bit about the nutritional value of chestnuts and why these trees were planted in Corsica in the first place. We live today in a time when innovation drives quick change and makes things possible, we could only dream of in the past. I do remember the time before the iPhone. But we also forget what was useful in the past and discard knowledge we should preserve.

Chestnut were well known in antiquity and probably come from Sardis in Anatolia – in the Fertile Crescent – as so many of our cultivated plants. The trees were cultivated since 2’000 BC. The chestnut was the staple provider of carbs where cereals like wheat or barley would not grow. Greek and Roman armies planted chestnut trees wherever they went on campaign. It was good fall back food. Corsica’s mountainous terrain is not really suitable for cultivating cereals but perfect for chestnuts. Numerous sources mention that Corsicans lived for centuries only from chestnut, olive oil and fruits. Wild boars also fed on chestnut but could only be hunted by nobles thus never made it on the tables of ordinary people.

Chestnuts are high on carbs, have zero gluten and almost no fats. Eating half a kilo of chestnuts provides a person with one third of its daily calorie intake (100g = 180 calories). Chestnut are as potent as wheat and rice but better than potato. Amazing! The fruit preserves well when dried or milled, a feature that Roman Legionnaires appreciated. Chestnuts preserve for over a year if stored dry and cool – very similar to wheat. No wonder the Genovese authorities asked the Corsican to plant a chestnut tree, an olive tree, a fig tree and a mulberry tree every year. The chestnut, olives and figs fed the people so they could produce silk for their masters in Genoa. Someone needed to produce the goodies the merchants wanted to trade! The association of chestnut with working people also created the impression that chestnut is food for the poor. Wealthy people ate the higher quality white bread instead. But it is just one of these cultural biases. The nutritional value is the same. Does lighter colored pasta taste better than slightly brownish? Time to rediscover old recipes and culinary traditions.

An old mill in Corsica where chestnut flower was made

Outside core chestnut territory, not much of the culinary tradition of chestnuts survived. But over the last two decades, a sort of revival started. The local merchant in the Ardèche, Monsieur Lévesque, sells now chestnut products at the back of his store to tourists from abroad and has 53 recipes with chestnuts. Have a look. There is not enough space to talk comprehensively about the chestnut cuisine. Thus, I am going to list three recipes I like:

The first are Brussels sprouts with lardons and chestnuts. Takes less than 30 min to prepare. Blanch the sprouts in boiling water for 5 minutes and put aside. Take the lardons and fry in olive oil with a bit of butter until crisp and put aside. Add a handful of fresh or de-frosted chestnut and fry until nicely brown (5 min). Add sprouts and lardons back, stir and season with lemon juice – there is enough salt in the lardon you will need nothing else.

Brussels sprouts with lardons and chestnut – photo is from the BBC Good Food

My next one is even simpler to make. But you need to find pasta made from chestnut flower first. Even I do not make my own. It is fun to make but takes time. Boil the pasta in slightly salted water – time as mentioned on the package. Meanwhile fry sage leaves for a few seconds in melted butter – not too long! Some people add garlic but I believe the garlic flavor is too strong and squashes the sage. Combine. Yummie!

Pasta made from chestnut flour

My last recipe is something I have not made for a while but will do as soon as the borders to France open again: Vegan chestnut soup. Also easy to make. Take a few carrots and onions, mince and slowly fry in olive oil for 10 min. Add vegan stock (I buy it – too time consuming to make) and boil for a few minutes. Add the roasted and chopped chestnut and a handful of chopped parsley. Let it boil again for 10 min. Put in a blender and puree until smooth. Season with salt and fresh lemon juice. Decorate with chopped parsley. It is delicious.

Cultivating chestnut is not something high on the priority list of the EU and sadly, most of the chestnut we eat today – unless you live in Corsica or the Ardèche – comes from China. Nevertheless, it is time to rediscover this wonderful fruit. Luckily it has survived on our streets as grilled marrons and we remember its flavor. It is time to dedust the old recipes and enjoy. At a time when we learn more and more about the health benefits from vegan cuisine, who would say that chestnut is poor people’s food?

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Jenny Banziger
Jenny Banziger
Jun 07, 2020

One of the very few surviving chestnut trees in Chantrou

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