In the french language there are two words for sweet chestnuts. 'Les marrons' or 'les chataignes'. The tree is always
called a 'chataignier'. Do not confuse with horse chestnuts which are not edible.
A hundred years ago, chestnut woods were kept meticulously clean just as the walnut orchards are kept today.
Especially around the areas of Perigord and Cantal.
A large area of wooded countryside is still called 'La Chataigneraie', due to all the chestnuts.
Sweet Chestnuts were once the most important foodstuff in this area, before the cultivation of potatoes and flour. Sweet Chestnut flour was used to make a bread substitute and the peasents who lived around the poverty sticken region of the 'Cevennes' chestnuts were their staple.
Just as we say 'man can live on bread and water' the people of Cevennes are said to be able to
'live on chestnuts and water'. Also the chestnut tree is known as 'l'arbre à pain' ie. the bread tree, because
it was neccesary to make their bread from chestnut flour.
The first piece of land we bought in France had a whole side of 'chataigniers', as autumn arrived all the ripe chestnuts would fall from the trees, leaving us with an immense prickly floor. We would collect as many as we could, carefully take the nuts from their prickly shells and roast them over an open fire.
We used a long handled frying pan a local friend had lent us, it had holes in the pan, but they were not so small to let the chestnuts fall through. We were told to shake frequently until cooked. Use your noses!!! they said.
There is also a special knife for peeling the skins off, called 'une serpette' not an easy task.
The problem with Les Chataignes (chestnuts) is peeling them. The way we were shown was to score the chestnuts with a knife then bring to the boil in a large pan and simmer for about 10 mins, drain a few at a time and peel off the inner and outer skins while hot, if you allow them to cool the skins will not come off.
Sometimes it may be easier to cut the chestnuts in half when cooked and scoop ou the flesh.
Or if you plan ahead, boil the chestnuts then drain. Cover with a tea towel and put a lid on the pot and leave
for a few days to allow the chestnuts to sweat and the skins come off easier then.
There are lots of recipes involving chestnuts and I will endevour to collect them one by one.