October, and the chestnuts are on the ground. With more time and less money on my hands, like the reduced and self-sacrificing country family in Balzac's 'Père Goriot', who are said to have more chestnut soup than meat upon their table, it's time to avail myself of these most satisfying but time-consuming examples of food for free.
Sweet chestnut trees, chataigniers, are, with oaks, perhaps the most abundant trees here, which is one of the most noticeable differences between this landscape and that of Britain, where they are comparitively infrequent. Horse chestnuts, marronniers, by contrast, are relatively uncommon, even in town plantings, and the game of conkers is unknown, except to those familiar with or instructed in the eccentricities of British culture. The rationale behind this preference is perhaps a typically French one: why cultivate an inedible version of something for its beauty when there's one that yields something you can eat?
They are generally serviceable trees, as well as handsome; they grow fast, live long, and coppice well. The nuts are an optional bonus now, but in past centuries many a French rural dweller was saved from death by famine by eating chestnuts. The timber is good, and has been much used for building. It is said that spiders dislike it and won't make webs on chestnut wood, so it was practical for chateaux and other high-ceilinged buildings where dusting off cobwebs might pose a problem. It's reasonable wood for burning, if a little smoky.
The nuts here are variable; in a good year they are large and plentiful and worthwhile. This year they are rather small, after last year's atrocious summer they were, for the first time in living memory I think, non-existent, the previous year they were somwhat bug-ridden, I don't know why. But then we are rather too north-westerly, the climate too cool and damp. Further south grow the varieties which yield beautiful, plump, sweet nuts, easy to shell and peel, often two to a husk, the kind favoured for marrons glacés.
So why are they marrons glacés, when they are habitually called chataignes, and a marron is a conker? Good question, and one for which, like why you can't find non-cultured, non-UHT, fresh cream as opposed to crème fraiche, I have never received a satisfactory explanation. It simply elicits the the non-plussed response which is not really especially a Gallic shrug but more perhaps the reaction of people everywhere when their own linguistic or cultural inconsistencies and unanswerables are raised.
(The Gallic shrug also is something for which there is no real translation, as far as I know, and of which the French seem unaware as a national habit. My attempts to explain or convey what is meant by the term have resorted to imitation, and resulted in a puzzled and slightly hurt response, along the lines of "Do we do that? Oh dear...". I regretted trying, as if I had unkindly mocked a person for a tic or mannerism, and made them feel unhappy and self-conscious, criticised.)
Howsoever, the coda is always that of course that one should never eat a marron. Unless it is glacé, when it isn't really a marron. I have never understood how anyone above the age of four could possibly be so stupid as to make the mistake of eating a conker, but in case anyone is googling this to find 'difference between horse and sweet chestnut', I've kindly gone through my old drives and folders to find a picture of a horse chestnut, below,
and one of its leaves, below (which was a pretty one I used for a 'Handbook for Explorers' illustration, I am eternally proud to boast).
Picking up chestnuts is in truth rather like picking up seashells on the beach; I always vow I won't get sidetracked into doing it, but then find I can't help myself. The spiny husks are called bogues (which according to Hannah Green in Little Saint,is a word of Breton or pre-Latin Gallic origin), and can be quite painful on and in fingers and paws. So it's advisable to wear gloves to collect them. I never do, because, as I say, I never mean to go collecting them. Sturdy shoes are a good idea for the preliminary shelling, as kicking them out of grass and leaf litter and splitting them open with a foot each side of the husk is an irresistible pleasure. Having said that, husking chestnuts in sandals is one of the surprising, inconsistent delights of an Indian summer.
And what can you cook with them? They are very versatile, lend themselves to sweet and savoury alike. They are indeed good in soup, usually smooth ones, where they blend very well with all kinds of other autumnal things: potato of course, carrot, apple, parsnip (though the parsnip taste can overwhelm the more delicate chestnut flavour), and a particular favourite, which you can even buy in cartons here, is with pumpkin, where they smooth out and give substance, offsetting the somewhat swedey, thin, vegetable-ness of the pumpkin, which I find otherwise needs rather a lot of cream, butter, spice etc to give it interest. They're good in stuffings, of course, and with cranberries, though my attempts to make a nut-roast type loaf have never been very successful, it always comes out rather stodgy and cloying. Typically, they go with Brussels sprouts, especially with the addition of garlic and toasted breadcrumbs, and with red cabbage and apple and sour cream. As to sweet dishes, the most delectable,rich and utterly sinful chocolate dessert ever comes from Mireille Johnston's Complete French Cookery course, and consists of equal parts chestnut puree, sugar, butter and dark chocolate, melted together in a bain-marie and chilled overnight. (Only when researching the above link did I learn that Mireille died suddenly in 2000, aged just 65; the link is to an obituary, on John Whiting's website, which I'd also recommend. I feel quite distressed; her books and television were among the factors instrumental in bringing us to France, and reading the piece I was reminded of what a richly cultivated, brilliant person she was. I can still dream myself off to another place just browsing in her books. It is a little tempting to wonder if the amount of butter, cream, cheese, chocolate and duck fat in her cooking might have left her predisposed to sudden death, but I prefer not to. She always looked wonderful on it...). There is a slightly healthier version in Mary Norwak's fantastically originally named 'The Good Cook', which is a pound of chestnut puree, 8 oz of chocolate, 4 oz of sugar and 6 oz of butter, with a dash of brandy. But Mary lacks Mireille's glamour.