Did you know that the Emperor Charlemagne enjoyed roasted chestnuts with a glass of wine? Neither did I. Or that chestnuts were an indispensable ingredient of Talleyrand’s table? The citizen minister believed the most important quality of a diplomat was to be a gourmet.
I learned other interesting facts about my favorite fruit cum vegetable cum nut on a recent trip to Privas when I stopped at the Clément Faugier factory store. Faugier makes excellent chestnut cream and candied chestnuts which are shipped around the world.
Although we weren’t allowed in to the factory itself (proprietary trade craft and whatnot), my wife and I soaked up the mini-museum next door. As it happens, chestnuts have a rich and fascinating history. In Mediterranean culture, chestnut trees are prized for their versatility and dependability. They rank right up there with olive trees and are equally long lived (up to a thousand years).
Chestnut comes from the Latin word castanea. Its earlier antecedents are less clear. Some attribute the name to the town of Kastania in Thessaly. A later legend credits the nymph Nea (Neaera) who, preferring to kill herself rather than lose her virtue, was transformed into a majestic tree, the Casta Nea or the chaste Nea. It’s also known as the “bread tree” serving as a bread substitute in poorer regions.
French has two words for chestnuts: chataigne and marron, and the chestnut tree produces both. The marron is the result of one nut inside the tegument, the hard, dark skin that protects the fruit; the chataigne contains two or more. The marron has a rounder shape, is more flavorful, and withstands cooking better than its counterpart hence Crème de Marrons and Marrons Glacés.
I could go on but I’d rather eat them than retell their story. Of course everyone knows they’re wonderful in stuffing—by the way, we did find a 25-pound turkey in Provence and our hosts filled the cavity with chestnuts alone, losing very little in translation—but my favorite treatments involve their use in desserts such as chestnut pavé, chestnut vermicelli, and the Mont Blanc. Of course I won’t discourage you from roasting them on an open fire, especially at this time of year.