A matin castagne, a megiudi pestumi, a seira castagnon
In the morning, chestnuts; at midday, chestnut crumbs; in the evening, dried chestnuts . . .
- saying from Triora, in the western Ligurian mountains
Over much of the last 600 years, especially in times of war, plague, and famine, chestnuts have been vital for the survival of the inhabitants of our valley. Even if locally chestnuts didn’t comprise the 90% of the year round diet, as was the case to the east in parts of the Cévennes, it is still likely the inhabitants would have eaten little other than chestnuts during winter months – and chestnuts would have remained a vital staple of the diet throughout the rest of the year.
Chestnuts were not just a food of the rural highlands. In the 16th century Felix Platter, a Swiss doctor, wrote that in Montpellier “all winters long by the fireside, the young girls gorged themselves on roasted chestnuts until it made them ill”.
Chestnuts not only filled the stomach, but they are highly calorific with a high content of carbohydrates, contain vitamins, and are a good source of mineral salts. They are not however a complete food as they are low in protein. People may have survived on chestnuts but it didn’t necessarily mean that they thrived - malnutrition was known in northern Italy, even as recently as 1960, in babies who were weaned on food made of chestnut flour.
Another drawback to a very high chestnut diet is they known to cause severe flatulence . . .
Thanks to the humble chestnut the local population would have experienced a far lower death rate during the periods of war (when other crops were often destroyed, or never planted), and famine (generally caused by disease to other crops and poor weather).
Times when it is known that chestnuts were particularly important for survival were during the period of chaos following the fall of the Roman empire, the population booms prior to the Black Death of 1348 and during the first half of the 16th century, the wars of religion in the late 16th century, the mini ice age of the 17th and 18th centuries, and the years just before and after of the second world war.
It is reported that in the first part of the nineteenth century the average daily consumption was 2 kg of raw chestnuts per adult. To peel this amount of chestnuts took about 40 minutes, or about three hours for a family of five! And then there was the cooking - the chestnuts were put in a pot at dawn, along with any available vegetables, and boiled until the midday meal.
Our forebears ate chestnuts raw, roasted, in soup, and ground into flour that was made into a bread (that was coal-black in colour). The wood of the trees was used in construction (the roof beams of the author’s house for example), staves for barrels, and the bark was an important source of tannin used for the tanning of leather.
The chestnut season
Chestnuts were typically harvested over about a three week period starting late September or early October. Each tree produces 30 – 100 kg of nuts, up to 300kg in exceptional cases, so collecting them was a significant undertaking that involved the whole family. If outside help was required payment was typically in chestnuts, with the helpers keeping half of what they collected.
Chestnuts were in fact a de facto currency in the medieval and post medieval period and were bartered for wheat, cheese, olives or salt.
"the wealth of my poor native land . . . hard as stone, yellow as gold, it is sold to merchants who, every year, around December, make their appearance in the mountains of Orb . . ."
Ferdinand Fabre - "Monsieur JEAN" - 1898
All trees were, of course, privately property and the owners not only pruned the trees but kept the ground around them clear so that the nuts could more easily be collected.
Secadou, chestnut drying house, Saint Martin d'Orb
After the harvest was deemed over, the poor were often given permission to scavage for leftovers.
As harvesting was closely followed by All Souls Day (le Jour des Morts, 2 November) chestnuts have long been associated with the dead, and chestnuts were traditionally placed under the pillow as an offering.
Another tradition was based on the belief that on this day the dead returned to the house in which they had lived. To facilitate this, the inhabitants would leave their doors and windows open, set the table with roasted or boiled chestnuts, and then visit the cemetery. Of course, any nuts left by the dead would have been a welcome snack on their return . . .
[Though these are known French traditions, it must be said the author doesn’t know if they were practised in the Orb valley. If you know of any family traditions along these lines, we would love to hear of them.]
Once harvested the nuts needed to be preserved, as raw chestnuts are prone to fungal infection and weevil infestation. Some protection can be achieved by leaving the nuts in water for 8 – 9 days and then drying, or while still in the husks, piling them up on a clean floor and covering with chestnut leaves and stones. Both methods lead to slight fermentation which preserved the nuts for several months.
A more effective method is drying, which preseved the nuts for up to several years. This is where the region’s ubiquous secadou, or drying house, comes into play. These stone sheds are typically only 2 to 4 square metres in floor area.
The nuts were spread out on a rack and a small fire was lit at ground level to smoke them. As secadous have no chimneys, the smoke escaped through the small window installed for this purpose. As this process took two to three weeks the fire had to be kept going for the whole period. The next step was to take the dried nuts – from 5 to 10 kg at a time – put them in a sack and beat them against a hard surface until the nuts separated from shells.
Every year on the first weekend of November, Olargues celebrates the Chestnut with a festival
Les Paysans de Languedoc (English edition), Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
Chapter 2 : Population, Subsistance, Income