You will never see the chestnuts of the Périgord in the same way...

Villefranche du Périgord
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… 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…

What is the difference between the horse chestnuts and the sweet chestnuts ?

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.

Une châtaigne sauvage

A « wild » sweet chestnut

Une chataigneraie

A chestnuts orchard near Villefranche-du-Périgord

Un Châtaignier

A chestnut tree, king of the trees of the Périgord

So… (we are going to do a bit of History), if the chestnut was part of the basic foods in the Middle-ages, it quickly fell from favour… Rural exodus, tree diseases, constraints of production… It was abandoned for more productive crops such as cereals and fodder. But the Perigord and the Limousin do not forget their roots (literally) and the science helped ! We cross polinated, we searched… and towards the end of the 20th century we created resistant, fleshy and tasty varieties with a good yield, such as the « Bouche de Bétizac », called chestnuts.
-> There are different varieties of chestnuts, some are grown and are designed specifically to not grow partitioned ! Therefore it is perfect to do conserve chestnuts, confit chestnut, candied chestnuts… Yum

des marrons du périgord

Large chestnuts with no interstitial skin

des marrons du périgord

Chestnuts

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).

 

From the tree to our mouth : how the chestnuts grow ?

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…

Des jeunes pousses de chataigniers

Young chestnut trees

La ramasseuse à châtaignes et marrons

The harvester of Pierre Monteil

ramasser les chataignes

We sweep the ground

Trier bogues et marrons

Husks and chestnut triage

séparer les bogues des marrons

The blowing system to separate the husks from the chestnut

les marrons triés

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.

nettoyer châtaignes

Washing the chestnuts

calibrer les châtaignes

Calibrating chestnuts

trier les chataignes

A last triage to remove the mistakes

 

Do you know how to peel horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts ?

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…

machine pour nettoyer les châtaignes

The machine looks like a dragon, doesn’t it ?

les fourneaux pour retirer peau des marrons

The furnace burning the skin of the chestnuts

Châtaignes nettoyées

The skin is burnt

marrons lavés

The chestnuts are washed

cagette de marrons

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…

Atelier de fabrication du domaine de rapatel

Domaine de Rapatel Workshop

préparation des sablés à la chataigne

Today we prepare shortbread biscuits (This super machine, is a shortbread biscuit machine !)

Crème de marron confiture de marrons

Confiture de marron (Chestnut jam) and crème de marron (chestnut cream)
Gaspacho châtaigne, sablés châtaigne, marrons

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 :

  • Choose a shiny fruit with a regular skin.
  • The chestnut is fragile, keep it in the fruit/vegetable box of your fridge or freeze it (by incising its skin before hand).
  • To conserve chestnuts, it is simple, peel them, parboil them for few minutes and conserve them dry in well sterilised and hermetically closed jars.
  • To do chestnut puree, cook the chestnuts, add a sugar and water syrup and a reasonable quantity of good quality vanilla seeds in (we want to bring out the taste of the chestnut, not to hide it !)
  • The chestnut flour is good value, as only a small amount is needed ; it should be mixed with another flour (with or without gluten). It is rich in taste and sugar, and will give a rustic and authentic taste to an apple pie, crepes, soups and chocolate desserts with red fruits rouges or with citruses.


-> And what about discovering another great product of the Périgord ? The walnuts ! Click here to see my article !


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