To start with, a pop quiz: What do chestnut trees produce – chestnuts or marrons? It’s a trick question because the answer is both, in varying quantities.
This is how it works: if a chestnut shell contains one large nut, it’s a marron, whereas if it contains three smaller nuts they are chestnuts or châtaignes. So a chestnut tree is only so named when there is more than 12% divided fruit inside the shell; if the proportion is less than this magic number, it’s a marron tree. Why 12%? Only the French know!
In France, the largest production of sweet chestnuts comes from Corsica, the Ardèche and right on our doorstep, the Var, where the magnificent chestnut trees are located in the bewitching hinterland Maures hills that lie between Hyères and Fréjus. The highest point of the Massif des Maures is around 800 metres, but the quick succession of ridges, the sudden drops and views, and the curling, looping roads, are pervasively mountainous. Cyclists love it! In the centre of the Maures is Collobrières: known as the sweet chestnut capital. Surrounded by more than 5,000 acres of chestnut forests, it is this quaint hillside village that dedicates the last three Sundays of the month of October to the celebration of this small, sweet, versatile fruit.
Chestnuts have been part of tradition in these parts for more than 1000 years. The cultivation of the sweet chestnut tree was introduced by the Carthusians in the 10th century. The trees became popular as the fruit enabled the large poorer population to survive, as the chestnut was often the only food available during long periods of the year when nothing else could grow. Their versatility meant that chestnuts could be ground into flour and used in the preparation of many of the local specialties. Historically, as not all regions of France had access to wheat flour, the chestnut was one of the few readily available sources of carbohydrates because, when dried, it could be kept to provide meals through the year. The flour was also was used to make a thick, hard bread; nowadays, chestnuts are even used to make a rich, golden craft beer.
The thousand-year-old tradition of chestnut production threatened to collapse 50 years ago, when the collection fell from 4000 metric tons at the beginning of the 20th century to only 500 tons in 1980. Consumption declined after the Second World War, when many locals associated them with “war food”: a little like the general public reaction to turnips in the UK during the same era.
These days, however, the cultivation is being revived and the chestnut is now the principal product of the Massif des Maures.
And there’s more good news for the sweet chestnut tree. Thanks to new medical findings, published in the Public Library of Science ONE online journal, the humble chestnut leaf is about to become a new superhero in the fight against skin disease and superbugs. Scientists found that the sweet chestnut leaf holds special properties that “disarm” the potentially fatal superbug MRSA, one of the most common germs picked up by patients in hospitals, which can cause a range of skin conditions and life-threatening lung infections. The discovery was made after researchers were inspired by traditional Italian folk remedies and the tales of healers talking about the use of leaves of the chestnut tree to treat skin infections and inflammations.
But back to the fruit.
Chestnuts are so versatile that they can be used in sweet or savoury dishes, salads or hearty yet delicate winter soups. It’s the sweetness that makes them so decadent in desserts, yet so enticing in liqueur de Châtaigne. They appear in recipes like the beignet aux châtaignes (chestnut doughnut), a hardy dessert from Corsica, which consists of a mixture of honey, chestnut flour, eggs and milk – and La Marrouge, a local beer brewed from roaster chestnuts.
Fancy a little tasting of all things chestnut? If so, head to the Chestnut Festival in Collobrières, surrounded by 2200 acres of chestnut trees, October 11th, 18th and 25th, 10h-18h (2015). It is a rural weekend festival with a grand market of artisanal handicrafts, local products – marron glacés, chestnut beer or chestnut honey – and all things dedicated to the humble chestnut: fresh, grilled, puréed, tinned and jarred.
See www.collobrieres-tourisme.com for more
Caren Trafford is our Antique Diva for Provence. She also writes children’s books (www.planetkids.biz) and lives with her two dogs and husband, in a mas covered with bougainvillea that over-looks the azure blue waters of the Mediterranean.