It’s the time of year for gathering in the fruits and nuts before the weather turns at the beginning of November. Our kitchen is full of produce: boxes of walnuts – our own; cases of sweet apples – a friend’s gift; and two gigantic pumpkins, bearing which neighbours Jacques and Simone staggered up the drive last week. The French are very good at celebrating nature’s bounty and there are plenty of fairs and festivals going on now.
Last Sunday it was saffron at Cajarc. This Sunday it was La Foire à la Châtaigne – chestnut fair – at Laguépie. This is one of the ten things to do that I set myself at New Year – I’m a bit behind, having only managed six with two months to go. It was another radiant autumn day and the valleys were aflame with red and gold as we drove the 20 kilometres or so to get there.
An important crop
In its heyday, the humble chestnut was one of the main exports from this corner of southwest France, whose slopes are clothed with chestnut trees. The chestnut has even given its name to local villages, such as Castanet. As well as animal feed it was an important supplement to local people’s diets and even enabled them to stave off famine in certain years.
Farmers carefully tended the chestnut forests – châtaigneraies– and harvested the nuts every autumn. They used rakes to bash open the spiky casings and then extracted the nuts by hand or using wooden tongs called gatafos in Occitan.
They put the chestnuts to dry in a secadou: every farmer had one. The nuts were placed on perforated shelves over a fire, which dried and lightly smoked them. After a fortnight they were ready for shelling. The people ate the biggest ones – castanhous – or made flour from them, while they mixed the smaller ones with potatoes for the pigs.
The riverside town of Laguépie stands at the junction between Aveyron, Tarn and Tarn-et-Garonne and at the confluence of the Viaur and Aveyron rivers. It was formerly the centre of a thriving trade in chestnuts and walnuts. Even into the 1950s, the town sent off by rail 500 tonnes of chestnuts per week in season, to destinations throughout France.
A thriving event
Nowadays, the town comes alive on the last Sunday in October when Laguépie celebrates the bygone chestnut trade with a Foire à la Châtaigne. The Association ‘Bogues et Châtaignes’ revived the fair only a decade ago. It now attracts thousands of visitors from miles around. You could barely move around some of the stalls.
As well as stands devoted to selling fresh chestnuts and walnuts by the kilo, numerous stalls were doing a roaring trade in local products, such as tripe, aligot – mashed potato with Laguiole cheese – and prunes. There were exhibitions of chestnut tree grafting, local varieties of apple and regional wild mushrooms. The latter were graded according to how edible or toxic they are – they all looked deadly to me.
There are more than 100 varieties of chestnut, we were told, which have adapted themselves to different growing conditions. Sixteen baskets of different varieties were on display. Now, I always thought one chestnut didn’t differ much from another but I was amazed to see how varied they are.
The French are nothing if not inventive when it comes to food and drink. You can buy a chestnut aperitif, a chestnut liqueur, chestnut flour and bread and cakes made with it. Chestnuts are also used in a stuffing for meat and poultry, as well as in soups and stews. You could also buy freshly grilled chestnuts, cooked in cylinders that looked like instruments of torture.
I have to say that I found this fair less appealing than the saffron fair last weekend. That was devoted almost entirely to saffron, although a few stalls sold other things. At Laguépie, the fair is more commercialised: you can buy anything from jewellery to jumpers. It seemed to me that the chestnuts took second place. Still, if it helps the local economy you can’t complain too much.
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The chestnut harvest has been very poor round here. Lots of small nuts this year. We’re not too bothered as we totally overdid chestnuts a couple of years ago and have gone off them for a while! I had plans to make my own coarse flour with them this year, but it hasn’t happened. I had no idea there were so many different varieties of chestnut. And by the way, chestnut liqueur with cider is a wonderful cold weather drink.
When we walked along the Viaur Valley 3 weeks ago, there were a lot of chestnuts, but when we got them home they were very disappointing. There simply hasn’t been enough rain to plump them up this year. I haven’t tried chestnut liqueur with cider but I certainly will. I have tried the liqueur as kir with white wine and it’s not to be missed. Now is the time for soirées à la châtaigne et au cidre.
I’m thrilled to hear you can buy chestnut flour in France, as you can here in Tuscany. I’m addicted to making a strange medieval sort of sweet called Castagnaccia, which I can see that I can continue to make in the Aveyron after all.
Oh yes, it’s readily available down here. Today at the fair they were selling 1kg packets of it, although I didn’t look at the price. In Corsica, they have a chestnut cake called Castagnicciu – I wonder if it’s the same as the dessert you make? Down here they make a variety of chestnut cakes and patisseries.
You can also buy it readily in any organic shop in France…..