It’s that time of year again when the sweet chestnuts are falling. Very few chestnut trees grow near us but not far away, around Najac and Laguépie, they clothe the slopes. If you walk along the River Viaur, a tributary of the Aveyron, they are there for the picking – but mind your fingers.
Yesterday in Parisot I went to a talk about chestnuts by M. Mercadier, a nurseryman in Saint-André-de-Najac, and a recipe demonstration by his wife. The chestnut is an ancient plant. Fossils of chestnut leaves millions of years old have been found in places. People started cultivating the trees during the 6th century BC and chestnuts became part of the staple diet.
In France, every part of the tree was used. The leaves became litter for cow byres while the wood had many uses. People made a soup with the peeled chestnuts or ground them into flour and made bread. Laguépie was an important centre for the production, processing and export of chestnuts. The decline started in the late 18th century when a fungus attacked the trees. M. Mercadier said that the advent of the potato also displaced the chestnut as a staple. Chestnut flour did not keep well, a further disadvantage.
The rural exodus that went on throughout the 20th century contributed to the decline in cultivation – although people ate chestnuts again during World War II. The chestnut forests came under threat once more from a parasite but a Conservatoire Régional du Châtaignier was set up in Rignac, Aveyron, to preserve the different varieties, provide advice to growers and promote their products.
M. Mercadier told us that more than 100 different varieties of chestnut exist. They vary according to the region, the soil type and the climate but they will not tolerate calcareous soil. They are fast-growing, which would have been an advantage when the nuts were a staple crop. M. Mercadier grafted the one pictured in March 2012 and it produced one bogue (the spiny casing) containing three nuts this autumn.
The annual Foire à la Châtaigne takes place in Laguépie (Tarn-et-Garonne) on the last Sunday in October.
Chestnuts in cooking
Mme Mercadier took over and demonstrated how to make gâteau à la châtaigne (more like a mousse – see the recipe below). I love grilled chestnuts but you have to work hard to get at the sweet nut inside the shell, invariably suffering burnt fingers. An alternative is to do it à la vapeur (in a steamer). If left 4-5 minutes before peeling the outer shell comes away easily, apparently. We were told not to grill them if we want to make chestnut jam or cakes.
Gâteau à la châtaigne
This is not really a cake since it is not cooked. The result is delicious but very rich, so don’t serve it at the end of a hearty meal.
1 kilo of unshelled sweet chestnuts
4 eggs, separated
1 glass of sugar (probably about 30g)
100 g good quality dark chocolate
20 cl crème fraîche
- Steam the chestnuts in a steamer. Remove the outer shells but leave on the inner skin. Crush the nuts in a food mill on its finest setting. This should make about 700 g of chestnut powder.
- Beat the egg yolks well with the sugar and mix in the crème fraîche. Add the crushed chestnuts and mix well.
- Beat egg whites till stiff and fold into the chestnut mixture.
- Melt the chocolate over hot water and add to the mixture, folding in thoroughly.
- Pour into a terrine or basin and leave in the fridge, preferably overnight.
Savoury chestnut cake
I am very grateful to our choir friend Ginette for providing this recipe. You can eat this with apéritifs – a kir à la châtaigne (white wine with chestnut liqueur) would be ideal to drink with it.
250 g chestnut flour
125 g fat (butter or margarine)
150 g gruyère cheese (or other hard cheese as liked)
A little water
- Rub the fat into the flour.
- Add the whole egg and a little water, then the cheese. Knead rapidly and roll dough into a ball then leave it to rest for 30 minutes.
- Since this dough is difficult to roll out, separate it into two sausage shapes and cut into little biscuits.
- Cook for 10 minutes in a hot oven (around 180C). But watch them like a hawk – they burn easily.
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