The end of the summer is branded by chestnuts for me. Some years ago, I used to go into the forests with my family to find them. Even if we had to drive out the chestnuts from the spiky chestnut husks with some damage on our fingers, these memories of autumnal walks are great. And how proud we were to weigh our baskets back home!
In France, chestnut trees have been appreciated for their wood and their fruits. To be more productive, wild trees were grafted. They helped the rural population to survive during the famine periods in the 18th century and contibuted to feeding farm animals. They were named ‘the bread tree’. For a long time, the chestnut has been associated with poverty and animal feeding. But now, with the growing wish to consume natural products, we are again discovering their nutritional and tasty qualities.
Tips for Eating Chestnuts:
In what form can I find them?
- Purée (canned)
- Plain (can and jar)
- Dry chestnuts (jar, sachets). The dry chestnut or châtaignon can be kept three or four years. Then you soak them to use as fresh ones.
Be careful: the cans of plain chestnuts and purée may look similar and confusion is possible. Both are good but the use is different, so be sure to read the lable carefully.
- Fresh chestnuts can be found from mid-September to December.
- Chestnut jam is available throughout the year but the other forms are easier to find around Christmas.
- In the forests: if you’re looking to pick up fresh chestnuts yourself, you won’t find sweet chestnut trees everywhere. They need acidic soils, some warmth and must not be too high in the mountains. In France, you’ll find them mostly in Ardèche, in the Cévennes, in the Var, in the West-South area and in Corsica. Watch out for the spine of the chestnuts husks – choose hard chestnuts with bright peel and without holes.
- Specialised shops, markets and supermarkets are the easiest way to find fresh chestnuts, but also the other long shelf life forms (canned or jarred as well as chestnut flour).
What should I watch for?
- Don’t wait too long before cooking the fresh chestnuts, as they tend to dry out and become hard.
- Throw away those with a tiny hole: it’s the sign that a worm lived in the chestnut and ate it.
- Also avoid those with dark dust: mould is present.
- For grilled chestnuts, you have to first take off the outer hard peel and then the tiny one. It can take time…
What are the dietary characteristics?
- Chestnuts are rich in starch and also have many vitamins (B and C) and minerals (phosphorous, potassium, calcium, iron and magnesium), moreso than other carbohydrate-rich foods.
- Chesnut flour is gluten free.
- Chestnuts can provoke flatulence if you eat too many of them. To avoid it, cook them well and chew them correctly.
Châtaigne or marron?
Just one word is used in English to name two differents sorts of chestnuts. The first one is smaller and the second one is bigger and easier to cook. The taste is more or less the same and one word is used to the place of another without really indicating the shape of the chestnut in common language.
When and where can I taste them?
- In October, you can participate in one of the chestnut celebrations in the main areas of production. It’s not as popular as in Catalunya, where the Castanyada is celebrated in all schools, but it is worth the detour.
- In a lot of restaurants during Autumn and Winter some dishes will include chestnuts.
Chestnuts are introduced in a lot of recipes as a major ingredient or as a secondary ingredient. But you’ll always enjoy their particular and specific flavour.
In savoury recipes
- Chestnuts can be used as a side dish as well as carrots or potatoes.
- They are an important part of some stuffing such as the Christmas turkey stuffed with chestnuts!
- They enter in the composition of soups, pâtés, blood sausage, etc… and chestnut bread is gaining a new following once again!
In sweet recipes
- Grilled chestnuts: you’ll find big and good grilled chestnuts in the streets of major towns. The flavour will first catch your attention, you will hear ‘‘chauds, chauds, les marrons chauds!” , then your eyes will convince you to buy some of them and you’ll enjoy the smokey taste and the warmth in your hands. If you do it at home, don’t forget to crack the first peel or the chestnuts will explode! Use a pan with holes to cook them in the fireplace or an old pan on your stove or just on a baking tray in your oven.
- Chesnut jam: again, you can do it at home. It takes time but it’s really rewarding. Buying chestnut jam is always possible, two trademarks are very famous: Bonne Maman (jar) and Clément Faugier (can), but you’ll find a lot of other industrial and artisanal jams. Enjoy this jam with some fromage blanc and yoghurt rather than on a slice of bread.
- Marrons glacés are a traditional Christmas sweet. Chestnuts are made into a confit and coated with sugar. It’s a long process but the result is quite exceptional, which is also reflected in their (high) price.
- Chestnuts in milk: they are cooked in milk with vanilla and you eat them cold. It’s my own Proust’s madeleine…
- Chestnuts are included in many cakes, charlotte, Yule log, biscuits, waffles, crêpes, etc…. you have also a chestnut liqueur worthy of interest.