… Come with me to discover the star of the Perigord countryside and discover the fascinating journey and work involved in getting it from the forest to your plate. They are all around you, each time you set a foot in a forest (ouch !) ; I am talking about the chestnuts ! Yes, but what is the difference between horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts… Let’s go through it in details…
Ha ha ! It is very simple, you see :
The sweet chestnuts are the fruits of the sweet chestnut trees. A tree with decidious, large and serrated leaves, which grow everywhere in France. There are many in the Périgord in their native state but the sweet chestnut trees are also cultivated for their fruit : the sweet chestnut. It grows inside a spiky husk, like a sea urchin. Inside, there are often several (1 large and 2 small or 3 medium for example). The sweet chestnut, in its normal state, is a medium size (depending on the trees, the years, the spring rainfalls for example), but it is often partitioned. It means that the fruit is composed by a first glossy husk that can be removed easily, but also another very thin skin (if not, it would not be fun), hard to remove and intertwined inside the cream colour flesh. What we eat is the flesh. It is soft, perfumed and sweet. The shiny husk is not edible and the small skin gives a bitter taste, astringent and tannic to the chestnut. It is for that reason that it is not edible and therefore, it must be peeled off… It is long, difficult and results in our not getting beautiful whole fruits.
A « wild » sweet chestnut
A chestnuts orchard near Villefranche-du-Périgord
A chestnut tree, king of the trees of the Périgord
Large chestnuts with no interstitial skin
And finally : the horse chestnut, it is the fruit of the horse chestnut tree. A different tree, which produces a non-edible fruit, easily recognisable from the sweet chestnut by its husk : It is smooth with spikes (it looks like it does have the goose bumps, it does not look like a hedgehog curl up if you prefer).
Now that we are clear on the botanical side, let’s move on to the practical agricultural work : The producer looks after the chestnut grove. So, they prune the trees, prepare the ground to facilitate the harvest, manage their hectares of forests all year. In autumn, the fruits are ripe and the husks start opening. The producer uses then a full arsenal of rural material to harvest the chestnuts, and it is far from being easy !
With a harvester (or picker, he roams the orchards several times. It means that he does the harvest in several goes in order to pick up the ripest fruits. In general, the chestnuts fall by themselves, but some years, the trees need to be knocked gently to help them. The machine sweeps, then sucks and picks up the husks. The harvest is emptied into a large dumper, which is then brought by tractor to the place where they will then be husked ! The spiky husk has to be removed and we keep only the chestnut. The husks need to be separated from the fruits and a blowing system ejects the husks while a conveyor belt transports the fruits the other way. An ingenious system…
Young chestnut trees
The harvester of Pierre Monteil
We sweep the ground
Husks and chestnut triage
The blowing system to separate the husks from the chestnut
Only the chestnuts are left !
Then, it is like at home : we plunge the fruits in a large volume of water and those coming back up are either empty or inhabited by worms... Another carpet transports the healthy fruits towards a giant spin dryer, and then a calibrating machine which separate the small from the big. Depending on the calibre, there are different uses.
The big fruits are kept for the more luxury products, which require beautiful whole fruits : the marrons glacés (candied chestnuts), conserve chestnuts (vacuumed pack or in jars), the confits chestnuts and those for the pastries, chocolate factory…
The smallest fruits are kept to be dried, then they are peeled and their flesh is reduced in powder to do flour or the smallest chunks are kept to do soups, flakes (Chestnuts flakes are trendy, and really good !) and other culinary preparations.
Washing the chestnuts
A last triage to remove the mistakes
To use chestnuts, the processor must peel them… with the help of a machine which looks like a large dragon and which, at the top, spits fire (yes, it’s true !), their shiny armour is burnt quickly and also the small skin of the chestnut. They are heated with a large flame, and then mixed in a very hot drum and, as if by magic, the chestnuts leave the machine pretty much peeled ! A last passage in a large potato washing machine and the sweet chestnut are naked, fleshy and shiny... Then, a last step, but not the least, before transforming the chestnuts, each fruit goes through the expert hand of a person armed with a knife, who checks the chestnuts and removes any of the remaining skin… So every product has the perfect taste…
The machine looks like a dragon, doesn’t it ?
The furnace burning the skin of the chestnuts
The skin is burnt
The chestnuts are washed
And voilà ! The chestnuts can now ready to be transformed in various products
Domaine de Rapatel, transforms chestnuts with talent and originality : gaspacho, biscuits, cakes, shortbread biscuits, jam, cream, puree, conserve chestnuts, flour… It is amazing everything that can be done with chestnut ! I take part in a shortbread biscuit workshop… the pastry is dense because the chestnut flour is very rich (it is then mixed with more airy flours), but it is gluten free ! Isabelle told me that we can even use the chestnut flour to thicken soup and make a Roux, to give a special taste to our preparations… Yum…
Domaine de Rapatel Workshop
Today we prepare shortbread biscuits (This super machine, is a shortbread biscuit machine !)
Shortbread biscuits, gaspacho and chestnut puree
I end my story with a large box of chestnuts that I transformed into puree at home ! Few tips to enjoy the Périgord chestnuts :