Friday, August 10, 2012

Châtaignes and Marrons - Chestnuts. Chestnuts in French Cuisine.

Behind the French Menu
Bryan Newman
  Updated April 2019

The Châtaigne with its multiple chestnuts.
Its very, very close cousin has a single fruit.
Photograph courtesy of Otto Phokus.

Châtaignes and Marrons, the sweet chestnuts of France.
These two sweet chestnuts taste, to most of us very similar and in a blind tasting of, I failed to tell any difference. Since they are so similar in taste and both are excellent, it is not surprising that French recipes use these two members of the chestnut family interchangeably.
Altogether some 25% of France is covered with chestnut forests from the north to the south.  Chestnuts were, for hundreds of years, the primary food of the French peasantry; it kept them alive through the winters as chestnut flour stored well. Chestnuts were also used to make beer, and the stored chestnut peelings were the food of the farm animals in winter and summer.
Rating the chestnuts in France.
Two French chestnuts are considered genuinely superior; though the others are excellent. The first is the Châtaigne d'Ardèche AOP, from the forests in the department of Ardeche in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes, the second is the Châtaigne Périgord Label Rouge, IGP which while bearing the name Perigord come from the forests in ten different departments in France's southwest.  What makes the difference from chestnuts grown elsewhere apart the place of origin is the way they are grown and stored when fresh. With the AOP or IGP label on the bag you know they are grown with care for the environment and the consumer. These two chestnuts may be France's best but when there is an excellent chef in the kitchen you may not know if he or she is using an also-ran from a forest nearby.

Single fruit chestnuts
Chestnuts on French menus:
If you begin your acquaintance with French chestnuts at the beginning of the season, then freshly roasted chestnuts will be sold on street corners;  elegantly served in brown paper bags so you may eat them as you stroll along. However, if you prefer chestnuts prepared by a chef there will be many opportunities for enjoying them as you travel around France.
Lentil and chestnut soup
Photograph courtesy of Jessica Spengler

Chestnuts on French menus:
Ballotine de Dinde Rôtie aux Marrons – Roasted, boned, turkey served with chestnuts.
Crème Brûlée aux Marrons, Caramélisée au Sucre Vergeoise - Crème Brûlée with chestnuts; caramelized with the brown sugar made from French sugar beets.
Venison, chestnut puree, served with Sauce Grand Veneur
Sauce Grand Veneur translates as the sauce of a great hunter. This is a traditional sauce that was created to serve with wild game.  The recipe has changed over time and now is usually made with red wine vinegar, butter, fresh berries, and crème fraîche.
 Filet de Grondin Rouge en Beignet à la Farine de Châtaigne – A filet of red gunard, the fish,  dipped in chestnut flour and then deep fried.
Gâteau à la Farine de Châtaigne Corse AOP – A cake made with the famed chestnut flour, the Corsican Farine de Châtaigne Corse AOP.  Chestnut flour is used in many other crepes, and cakes.
Marron Glacé – Candied Chestnuts are one of France's most famous sweets, candies, and are often part of a dessert. France has hundreds of years of experience in removing the water from fruits and replacing it with sugar, formerly honey.  I shall have to write a post on Fruits Confit or Fruits Glacés, candied or crystallized fruits.

Marrón Glacé – Candied Chestnuts.
Ravioles de Cèpes et Châtaignes au Parfum de TruffesFrench Porcini mushroom and chestnut ravioli  scented with truffles. 
Mont Blanc dessert
Photograph by courtesy ofsaksan
In the old region of Languedoc-Roussillon, now part of the super region of Occitanie in-season local restaurants will be offering their famous Figarette, a chestnut and porcini mushroom soup. In the old région of Limousin, now part of the super region of Nouvelle Aquitaine all year round you will be offered their Liqueur de Châtaignes,   a 40% alcohol chestnut liquor. 
Liqueur de  Châtaigne

When the conquistadors brought corn, maize, from the New World chestnut flower became less of a staple, but the magnificent forests remain as home to a wide variety of wild game from wild boar to deer
           The different types of chestnuts.
The châtaigne is correctly called the Spanish Chestnut or  Sweet Chestnut and from each fruit, there will anywhere from one to five nuts, usually three.  The marron is the American chestnut;  it usually has a single larger nut in each fruit, sometimes two.  The people who brought most of the châtaignes, the Spanish chestnut trees, to France were the usual suspects, the Romans.

Not all the châtaignes are chestnuts.
Châtaigne d'Eau, Macre or Macre Commune  - The water chestnut.
Châtaigne de Mer or Oursin - The sea urchin. This odd spiny little sea creature, so beloved of the French.  The sea urchin will need a separate post, save to say only its inside is eaten. The spines are left untouched.


Bryan G. Newman
Behind the French Menu
Copyright 2010, 2011,2012, 2015, 2019.
For information on the unpublished book behind this blog write to Bryan Newman

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