Saturday, November 15, 2008

That old chestnut

Châtaignes dans les bois
Se fendent, se fendent,
Châtaignes dans les bois
Se fendent sous nos pas
Chestnuts in the woods
Split open, split open,
Chestnuts in the woods
Split open at our feet

Words from a French song

I am not going to crack any lame jokes about French nuts in this post, although there is certainly plenty of potential. Instead, I am going to talk about the chestnut, without which Noël just wouldn't be Noël and it would be a sad and empty day for festive turkeys everywhere.

In French, there are two words for chestnuts: châtaigne and marron. The distinction is recent and merely culinary. They come from the same tree but the fruit is called a châtaigne when there are two or three nuts in a burr (the prickly shell), and a marron when there is only one. I have no idea why this is important but apparently it is.

Up until the 19th century, chestnuts were a major source of nourishment for people and animals alike. In fact, in some regions of France, the tree was known as the 'bread tree' because the fruit - and the wood - were so valuable. Although chestnut trees had been around for thousands of years, the first cultivated chestnut groves, or châtaigneraies, were only established in France during the Middle Ages. The tree thrives in warmer climates so most were planted south of the Loire, particularly in the Cévennes region, where chestnuts are still a speciality. The fruit was eaten roasted, made into jam or cooked with milk and vanilla to make a soup called bajana and it was also pounded into flour and used for making bread. At one time, it was even used as a trading currency and dowry offering - so, happy indeed was the soul with a few chestnuts rolling around in his pocket.

Sometime during the 19th century, the chestnut trees were afflicted with ink disease caused by a fungus, which reduced their number considerably. Gradually, the chestnut's popularity waned as people became more prosperous and could afford to vary their diet. There was a brief return to glory in wartime when the chestnut saved the population from famine, but the mass rural exodus in the 1950s sealed the fate of the humble chestnut tree forever. Once a vital necessity, it became little more than something to stand under.

Chestnuts are still gathered in the traditional manner - that is, picked up from the ground. There isn't any other way to do it really, as they are only ripe when they fall off the trees, which happens at the end of October. The use of nets makes the job easier and good chestnut pickers can gather up to four hundred kilos a day. In the past, they were paid in chestnuts and today, they would argue, they're paid peanuts (but that's another story).

Because of their high water content, chestnuts don't keep well so need to be preserved and the best way is by drying them. In some regions, this is still done in a clède, a small two-storey building with a slow-burning fire on the ground floor that dries the chestnuts spread out on the large rack that forms the first floor. After about a month, the chestnuts are skinned and are ready to be ground into flour or packed into tins and jars. In the past, the skinning process was carried out by men who stamped through the piles of chestnuts in boots studded with long nails. Today, they use a slightly more sophisticated method involving machines.

However, France has to import two-thirds of the total chestnuts they consume, mostly from Asia. And they are very fond of them. From October onwards, the smell of roasting chestnuts wafts through the city streets from chestnut sellers' stalls - although three euros for a small cone is a bit steep for something you can pick up yourself in the local park. It is, of course, unthinkable for the French to stuff their turkeys with anything other than chestnuts (my dehydrated sage-and-onion mix has never met with great success here) and those famous marrons glacés - candied chestnuts - are as essential to their Christmas as a tin of Quality Street is to ours.

A favourite topping for crêpes or toast is crème de marrons, a thick and sweet chestnut spread flavoured with vanilla. The best-known brand is sold in retro brown and white tins evoking the distant childhoods of a bygone era…it is the ultimate comfort food although condensed milk comes a very close second. You can also buy chestnut honey - and I have done, so I can warn you that the smell is atrocious and reminiscent of fresh cowpat but the taste is… unusual, perhaps, but not bad. As for bread made from chestnut flour, I bought some the other day from a health food shop. It was a small and extremely expensive loaf and I think I'll be giving it a miss in the future. To be perfectly honest, it didn't go very well with my Marmite…