Chestnuts are not just for Christmas

It's chestnut season. But, while we just save them for the Christmas turkey, our French neighbours use them to create tasty salads and puddings, discovers Simon Beckett

In Britain, chestnuts are associated with Christmas. They're as much a part of the festive season as mulled wine, as shown by the fact that 80 per cent of the 200 tons of pre-cooked chestnuts Merchant Gourmet sells in the UK each year is whisked off the shelves in November and December.

But, while chestnuts may make an admirable stuffing for the Christmas turkey or enliven a dish of boiled sprouts, we're only just starting to realise that their uses can extend beyond 25 December. In contrast, the rest of Europe has long valued the versatility of chestnuts, using them in salads or pairing them with chocolate, oranges or cinnamon in puddings. "They're great with all poultry and game," adds Leatham, "or with roast meats, instead of roast potatoes. Probably better for you, too."

Considering that chestnuts have now become so enshrined in our Christmas tradition, it's surprising that few, if in fact any, of those bought in the UK are home-grown. Most come from Europe, especially Portugal and France. Originally from West Asia, the sweet chestnut was first introduced to Europe by the Greeks. In France, entire chestnut woods and forests were planted during the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the nuts were eaten fresh, dried over fires or made into flour.

Although chestnut cultivation in France was largely abandoned at the start of the 20th century, the forests remain and the chestnuts are still used extensively in French cuisine, as an accompaniment to savoury dishes or in desserts such as marrons glacés (crystallised chestnuts).

Broadly speaking, there are two varieties - the châtaigne, which has two or three fruits packed together inside its husk, and the marron, which only has a single large fruit. Although the French (somewhat confusingly) often refer to them all as marrons, it's the smaller but sweeter and more flavoursome châtaignes that are commonly used.

Both flourish in the south, especially in thickly wooded areas, such as that around La Corrèze in (omega) the Limousin region. Known as La Châtaigneraie, this is real chestnut country. From about September onwards, it's common here to come across families armed with buckets, gloves and long-handled wooden forks wherever there are chestnut trees. If the trees are on private land, the gatherers may pay the owner for the right to harvest. More often, however, the chestnuts are growing wild. Encased in a fearsome-looking husk, or "bogue", of sharp spines, the ripe fruit simply drops off the tree and lies in the grass until it's picked up.

It's a rare pleasure to come across a tradition that hasn't so much resisted progress as ignored it completely. "It's an entirely natural product," says Leatham, looking around the grove of mature chestnut trees we've come to visit. To demonstrate, he breaks open a chestnut from a newly fallen husk to reveal that a maggot has eaten its way all the way through it. As with any wild food, this is merely an occupational hazard, and a gatherer has to check for signs that the chestnut is diseased or worm-eaten. "There is no fungicide or pesticide used. These are wild plants," Leatham says, cutting off an undamaged section of the nut and chewing it.

His company buys all of its whole chestnuts from the Ponthier family, who are the largest producers of chestnuts not just in the region, but also in the whole of Europe. They, in turn, buy direct from the gatherers at the local markets, where the chestnuts are priced according to size and ripeness. As with so many other things, in the chestnut world, biggest isn't always best. Medium-sized fruit is considered to have the most flavour and so commands the highest prices, while larger chestnuts are usually sold fresh and the smaller ones are bought by producers of jams and purées.

At this point, the rural tradition of chestnut gathering makes way for a more commercial approach. The Ponthiers freeze or vacuum pack around 2,000 tons of chestnuts each year at their factory in Objat, a modern plant that seems incongruously hi-tech considering the chestnuts' rustic origins. After being lightly roasted and steamed to remove the thick brown outer- and furry inner-skins, the chestnuts are hand-sorted to weed out any defective fruit, then either frozen or sealed into vacuum-packs and pasteurised in boiling water - a process which also cooks them.

The process doesn't involve any additives or preservatives. And the idea of preserving chestnuts in itself is hardly new: even the Greeks and Romans used to dry them out so they could be used throughout the year. It's only in the UK that the humble chestnut has been under-appreciated.

But, at last, that seems to be changing. And not before time, believes Leatham. "There is a growing appreciation of their versatility over here," he admits. "If only people realised chestnuts aren't just to have with turkey at Christmas."

News
A 1930 image of the Karl Albrecht Spiritousen and Lebensmittel shop, Essen. The shop was opened by Karl and Theo Albrecht’s mother; the brothers later founded Aldi
people
Arts and Entertainment
Flora Spencer-Longhurst as Lavinia, William Houston as Titus Andronicus and Dyfan Dwyfor as Lucius
theatreThe Shakespeare play that proved too much for more than 100 people
News
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'
filmA cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
Arts and Entertainment
Stir crazy: Noel Fielding in 'Luxury Comedy 2: Tales from Painted Hawaii'
comedyAs ‘Luxury Comedy’ returns, Noel Fielding on why mainstream success scares him and what the future holds for 'The Boosh'
Life and Style
Flow chart: Karl Landsteiner discovered blood types in 1900, yet scientists have still not come up with an explanation for their existence
lifeAll of us have one. Yet even now, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
Arts and Entertainment
'Weird Al' Yankovic, or Alfred Matthew, at the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival Screening of
musicHis latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do our experts think he’s missed out?
Sport
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe best children's books for this summer
Life and Style
News to me: family events were recorded in the personal columns
techFamily events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped that
News
news
News
i100
Travel
Fair trade: the idea of honesty boxes relies on people paying their way
travelIt seems fraught with financial risk, but the policy has its benefits
News
people
Sport
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
sport
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Visitor Experience volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary role: Old Royal Naval College: To assist the Visitor Experien...

    Telesales Manager. Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Recruitment Consultant (Trainee), Finchley Central, London

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    Day In a Page

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

    Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary