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."

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
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

    C++ Software Engineer - Hounslow, West London - C++ - to £60K +

    £40000 - £60000 per annum + Pension, Healthcare : Deerfoot IT Resources Limite...

    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 ...

    Day In a Page

    A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

    A new Russian revolution

    Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
    Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

    The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
    Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

    Standing my ground

    If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

    Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
    Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

    Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

    The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
    The man who dared to go on holiday

    The man who dared to go on holiday

    New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

    Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

    For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
    The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

    The Guest List 2014

    Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
    Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

    Jokes on Hollywood

    With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

    Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

    Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

    Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
    Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

    Edinburgh Fringe 2014

    The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

    The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried