Antoinette Fauve-Chamoux. Cambridge World History of Food. Editor: Kenneth F Kiple & Kriemhild Conee Ornelas. Volume 1. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
In the mountainous areas of the Mediterranean where cereals would not grow well, if at all, the chestnut (Castanea sativa) has been a staple food for thousands of years (Jalut 1976). Ancient Greeks and Romans, such as Dioscorides and Galen, wrote of the flatulence produced by a diet that centered too closely on chestnuts and commented on the nuts’ medicinal properties, which supposedly protected against such health hazards as poisons, the bite of a mad dog, and dysentery.
Moving forward in time to the sixteenth century, we discover that “an infinity of people live on nothing else but this fruit [the chestnut]” (Estienne and Liébault 1583), and in the nineteenth century an Italian agronomist, describing Tuscany, wrote that “the fruit of the chestnut tree is practically the sole subsistence of our highlanders” (Targioni Tozzetti 1802, Vol. 3: 154). A bit later on, Frédéric Le Play (1879, Vol. 1: 310) noted that “chestnuts almost exclusively nourish entire populations for half a year; in the European system they alone are a temporary but complete substitution for cereals.” And in the twentieth century, the Italian author of a well-known book of plant-alimentation history mentioned that chestnuts not only were collected to be eaten as nuts but could also be ground into flour for bread making (Maurizio 1932). He was referring to the “wooden bread” that was consumed daily in Corsica until well into the twentieth century (Bruneton-Governatori 1984). Clearly, then, chestnuts have played an important role in sustaining large numbers of people over the millennia of recorded history (Bourdeau 1894).
Geographic location has had much to do historically with those who have found a significant part of their diet at the foot of the chestnut tree. The tree tends to stop bearing fruit north of the fifty-second parallel, and its yield in Eurasia satisfies the growers’ wishes only south of a hypothetical line drawn from Brittany to Belgrade and farther east to Trabezon, Turkey—the line ending up somewhere in Iran. In Africa, chestnuts grow only in the Maghreb. In North America, there were many chestnut trees before the first decades of the twentieth century, at which time some three billion were destroyed by a blight. Another species of chestnut exists in China, and Japan is on its way to becoming the world’s leading chestnut producer.
Chestnuts grow somewhat haphazardly within these geographic limitations. For example, because they dislike chalky soils, they are rare in Greece, except on some sedimentary or siliceous outcrops, where they can become so abundant that they determine place names, such as “Kastania.” In addition, the roots of chestnuts tend to decay in badly drained soils, which helps to explain why the trees thrive on hills and mountainsides. Such exacting requirements also help us pinpoint those regions of Portugal, Spain, France, and Italy where populations were long nourished by chestnuts.
It is true that chestnuts are found beyond the geographic limits just outlined. But these are grown for their wood and not for their fruit (chestnut wood is as strong as oak but significantly lighter)—an entirely different method of cultivation. Fruit-producing chestnut trees must be pruned into low broad shapes, whereas trees for lumber are encouraged to grow tall. In addition, fruit-producing trees require grafting (such as the marrying of hardy to fruit-bearing species)—an activity deemed vital in historical documents (Serre 1600) because the ungrafted tree produces two or three small chestnuts in one prickly pericarp or husk (called a bur) whose only use is for animal feed. Even in our own times, grafting remains necessary as it is practically the only way to avoid the disease enemies of chestnuts that have so menaced the trees since about 1850.
After performing the not-so-easy operations of extracting the chestnut from its bur, hard-peel cover, and adhering tannic skin, one has a nourishing nut that is 40 to 60 percent water, 30 to 50 percent glucids, 1 to 3 percent lipids, and 3 to 7 percent protids. In addition, the nut has significant amounts of trace minerals which vary, depending on the soil; and chestnuts are the only nuts to contain a significant amount of vitamin C.
Dried, the chestnut loses most of its water as its caloric value increases. According to the usual conversion table, 100 grams of fresh chestnuts provide 199 calories; dried, they provide almost twice (371 calories) that amount. (For comparative purposes, 100 grams of potatoes = 86 calories; 100 grams of whole grain wheat bread = 240 calories; 100 grams of walnuts = 660 calories.) (Randoin and de Gallic 1976).
When we pause to consider that our sources place the daily consumption of chestnuts by an individual at between 1 and 2 kilograms, we can quickly understand why the chestnut qualifies as a staple food. And like such staples as wheat or potatoes, chestnuts can be prepared in countless ways. Corsican tradition, for example, calls for 22 different types of dishes made from chestnut flour to be served on a wedding day (Robiquet 1835). When fresh, chestnuts can be eaten raw, boiled, baked, and roasted (roasted chestnuts were sold on the streets of Rome in the sixteenth century and are still sold on the streets of European towns in the wintertime).
Chestnuts also become jam and vanilla-chestnut cream, and they are candied. When dried, they can also be eaten raw, but they are usually ground into flour or made into a porridge, soup, or mash (polenta in Italy) and mixed with vegetables, meat, and lard. As flour, chestnuts become bread or pancakes and thickeners for stews. Indeed, speaking of the versatility of chestnuts, they very nearly became the raw material for the production of sugar. Antoine Parmentier (that same great apothecary who granted the potato the dignity of human food) extracted sugar from the nuts and sent a chestnut sugarloaf weighing several pounds to the Academy in Lyon (Parmentier 1780). Research on the possibility of placing chestnuts at the center of the French sugar industry was intensified a few years later during the Continental blockade of the early nineteenth century. Napoleon’s choice, however, was to make sugar from beets.
A Chestnut Civilization
That the geographical areas favorable to chestnut trees and their fruits were precisely the areas in which populations adopted chestnuts as a staple food seems obvious enough. But in order to make full use of the opportunity, populations had to create what might be called a “chestnut civilization,” meaning that they had to fashion their lives around the trees, from planting the trees to processing the fruits.
Chestnut trees seldom grow spontaneously. Moreover, pollination rarely occurs wherever the trees grow in relative isolation from one another, and fructification is poor when the tree is not regularly attended. For all these reasons, it is generally the case that the presence of a chestnut tree is the result of human activity, in contrast to a random act of nature. This is clearly so in the case of plantations, or trees whose alignment marks the borders of fields and pathways. But it is also the case with the countless clusters of two or three trees that cast their shadows upon the small hilly parcels of poor tenants.
It is important to note, however, that people do not plant chestnut trees for themselves. Rather, they do it for generations to come because the trees do not begin to bear fruit until they are at least 15 years old, and their yield is not optimal until they are 50 years old: “Olive tree of your forefather, chestnut tree of your father, only the mulberry tree is yours,” as the saying goes in the Cévennes (Bruneton-Governatori 1984: 116).
Most of the operations connected with chestnut cultivation involve looking after the trees. This means clearing the brush beneath them and, when possible, loosening the soil; giving water when really necessary; fertilizing with fallen leaves; repairing enclosures to keep away stray animals whose presence could be catastrophic and whose taste for chestnuts is well known; and above all, trimming branches so that they will bear a maximum amount of fruit. Yet, tree care is hardly an exacting task, requiring only 3 to 8 days a year per hectare of trees (Bruneton-Governatori 1984). The trees, of course, would survive without even this minimal care, important only for improving the yield of nuts, which prompted some critics in the nineteenth century to compare chestnuts to manna falling directly from heaven into the hands of lazy onlookers (Gasparin 1863, Vol. 4: 742).
Yet, when all of the exacting and repetitive tasks involved in growing and preparing chestnuts are contemplated, with an absence of mechanization the common characteristic, chestnutting suddenly seems like very hard work indeed.
Efficient collection required that the area under and around the trees be clean so that few chestnuts would be overlooked. Collecting was a manual job, lasting at least three weeks (chestnuts do not fall all at once), and required the efforts of all members of the family. Perhaps half of the burs—the prickly polycarps—open on the tree or when they hit the soil. The other half had to be shelled, often with the bare and calloused hands of those viewed as tough “chestnutters” by fellow workers. Next the fruits were sorted. The very best nuts were sent to market, about 20 percent were judged “throw-outs” for the pigs, and the rest were set aside for domestic consumption.
Chestnut collection was tedious and hard on the back, requiring about 10 hours of labor for an average collection of between 50 and 150 kg per person. An estimate was made that 110 working days were required (100 women-children/days; 10 men/days) to gather the chestnuts from 2 hectares, which would amount to about 51 2 tons of fruit (Hombres-Firmas 1838).
Fresh chestnuts constituted the bulk of the diet for those who harvested them until about mid-January—about as long as they could safely be kept. But before they could be eaten, the nuts had to be extracted from their rigid shell and stripped of their bitter and astringent skin. This is a relatively easy procedure when chestnuts are roasted, but generally they were boiled. Peeling chestnuts was usually done by men in front of the fire during the long evenings of autumn and winter. To peel 2 kg of raw chestnuts (the average daily consumption per adult in the first part of the nineteenth century) required about 40 minutes. Therefore, some three hours, or more, of chestnut peeling was required for the average rural family of five. The next morning around 6 A.M. the chestnuts, along with some vegetables, were put into a pot to begin boiling for the day’s main meal.
The only way to preserve chestnuts for longer periods was to dry them. The method was to spread out the fruit on wattled hurdles high over the heat and smoke of a permanent fire for about two weeks, often in wooden smoking sheds built specifically for this purpose. Following this step, the dried chestnuts—from 5 to 10 kg at a time—were wrapped in a cloth and rhythmically thrashed against a hard surface to separate the nuts from shells and skins that the drying process had loosened.
Dried chestnuts had the effect of liberating peasants from the irksome chore of daily peeling, and the drying procedure had important social consequences as well. Diego Moreno and S. de Maestri (1975) have noted that the expanding cultivation of chestnut trees in the sixteenth-century Apennines gave birth to hamlets that sprang up around the smoking sheds.
Grinding and Flour
After the chestnuts were dried, they could be ground into flour that would keep for two or three years, provided it was not subjected to moisture. From this flour pancakes and bread were made, although because chestnut flour does not rise, many commentators refused to call the loaves bread. There were also others who had harsh words for other chestnut products, making fun of “this kind of mortar which is called a soup” (Thouin 1841: 173) or that bread which “gives a sallow complexion” (Buc’hoz 1787: 126).
Chestnuts were mostly the food of rural peasants in mountainous regions that stretched in a belt from Portugal to Turkey. But they were a well-appreciated food by many accounts, such as those of regionalist connoisseurs who praised the “sweet mucilage” (Roques 1837) and the following 1763 text published in Calendriers …du Limousin:
All the goods nature and art lavish on the table of the rich do not offer him anything which leaves him as content as our villagers, when they find their helping of chestnuts after attending their rustic occupations. As soon as they set eyes on them, joy breaks out in their cottages. Only mindful of the pleasure they then taste, they are forgetful of the fatigues they endured: they are no more envious of those of the towns, of their abundance and sumptuousness (Calendriers … du Limousin 1763, reprinted in Bruneton-Governatori 1984: 462).
This is not to say, however, that only peasants ate chestnuts, and, in fact, numerous sources indicate that this foodstuff could be a prized dish at higher levels of society. For example, a French nobleman (Michel de Montaigne 1774) recorded that on October 22, 1580, while on his way to Italy, he ordered raw chestnuts. And, in fact, a Spanish nobleman wrote in his account of a campaign against the Moriscos that the whole company, nobility included, consumed 97.4 tons of bread, 33,582 liters of wine, and 240 tons of chestnuts, as against only 19.3 tons of biscuit and 759 kg of chickpeas (Vincent 1975).
We know that chestnuts were served in Utrecht in 1546 at the royal Golden Fleece banquet, and we have the delightful Marie Marquise de Sévigné (1861, Vol. 2: 133-4) playing the woman farmer who claimed to be “beset with three or four baskets” (of chestnuts): “I put them to boil; I roasted them; I put them in my pocket; they appear in dishes; one steps on them.”
This and other quotations tend to obscure the fact that, for the rich in particular, there were chestnuts and then again, there were chestnuts. The French (and the Italians) have two words for chestnut. The ordinary chestnut is called châtaigne, whereas the best (and sweetest) chestnut is called a marron (which in English is known as the Spanish chestnut). The difference lies in size and form. Usually the husk holds only one marron with no dividing skin (the kernel is whole), whereas there may be three or more châtaignes in a husk divided by partitions. Marrons are the material of commercial candied chestnuts and have historically commanded a price three or four times greater than their common, flawed counterparts. One of the reasons is that the yield of marrons is less. Thus, in times past, those who grew them were usually located on a commercial artery and did not depend on chestnuts alone to feed families and pigs.
From the Renaissance on, there were three major commercial roads for chestnuts in Europe. One ran from the Portuguese provinces of Minho and Tras-os-Montes to the harbors of northern Portugal and Galicia where chestnuts were loaded aboard ships, usually bound for Bordeaux. In that port the Iberian chestnuts were combined with chestnuts bought on the Périgueux market and then sent on to Great Britain and the Netherlands. A British author writing of this trade route said that the choicest chestnuts were those grown in Spain or Portugal (Miller 1785).
The French, by contrast, thought the best chestnut was the so-called Lyon chestnut, which was actually an Italian chestnut traveling the second of the three European chestnut arteries. Lyon monopolized the importation of Italian chestnuts, transshipping them to Paris and points farther north. The third route, which also originated in Italy, ran from Milan and Bergamo north to the Germanic countries.
Fresh chestnuts, as we have seen, are perishable, staying fresh for only about three months. And weeks of travel in wagons and the holds of ships did them no good. Thus, transporting chestnuts in bulk was a risky business, and wholesalers fixed their prices accordingly. Only the best chestnuts were shipped, and they went mostly into sweetmeats. In markets they were so costly that only the well-off could purchase them for a tidbit at the table. Consequently, the chestnut trade never did involve large quantities, and most of the chestnuts sold for consumption went through local markets and merchants. In 1872, for example, Paris received barely 6,000 tons of an estimated national crop of 500,000 tons.
The bulk of any chestnut crop, of course, reached no market but was consumed by the peasant families that grew them, along with their poultry and two or three hogs. The British agronomist Arthur Young, who traveled in Limousin, France, during the years 1787-89, calculated that an acre with 70 chestnut trees would feed one man for 420 days or 14 months (Young 1792). This seems a substantial overestimation of the average number of trees per acre. It was generally the case that between 35 and 100 trees grew on 1 hectare (about 212 acres). If, however, one assumes that a family living on a hilly and not particularly productive hectare of land could harvest about 2,800 kg of chestnuts, then certainly the chestnuts alone could feed a family for more than half a year. With an average daily consumption of 2 kg per person or 10 kg for a family of five, the 2,800 kg of chestnuts would have fed the family for close to 7 months and a pig or two (350 kg are required to fatten a pig from 100 to 200 kg). The pigs, in turn, might be sold or slaughtered, and one suspects that several pigs on a chestnut farm were a food index of chestnut surpluses.
Chestnuts in Decline
A very good question is why such a useful and valuable foodstuff as chestnuts has today been virtually forgotten. The “golden age” of the chestnut, which seems, in retrospect, to have begun with the Renaissance, had all but vanished by the middle of the nineteenth century (Pitte 1979). It is difficult to quantify the decline because the statistics do not reflect domestic production for self-sufficiency. Nonetheless, a series of events that had a considerable impact on chestnutting can be identified.
One of the first blows dealt to chestnut production (especially in France) was the very hard winter of 1709. According to observers, tree loss was considerable, even to the point of discouraging replanting (Journal Économique 1758). The Intendant in Limoges reported in 1738 that owners there had not replanted even a twentieth of the trees that had frozen 29 years earlier. And in 1758, a chestnut plantation around the Pau castle was uprooted. Unquestionably, the winter of 1709 caused considerable concern for the future of chestnut cultivation, as did the similarly devastating winters in 1789 and 1870.
A second factor was the substitution of mulberry trees for chestnuts around the Rhone valley, where Lyon and its silk industry exerted considerable influence. Silkworms are fond of mulberry leaves, and the mulberry tree (unlike the chestnut) grows fast and produces quickly. Its cultivation, therefore, encouraged a cash economy as opposed to self-sufficiency.
A third reason for the decline of the chestnut, at least in France, may have been free trade in wheat. In 1664, fear of food shortages had prompted Colbert to take the severe measures of controlling wheat production and prohibiting its exportation. At the same time, the exportation of chestnuts was encouraged. Such regulations lasted about a century before the free traders triumphed over regional monopolists and wheat became a cheap and widely available foodstuff, even competing with chestnuts in regions that had traditionally grown them.
Chestnuts also came under fire beginning in the eighteenth century as a foodstuff deficient in nutrients. A well-off society that tasted a marron occasionally pitied the unfortunate peasants who were condemned to gulping down a pigfood—the chátaigne. Such a diet represented “The International of Misery and Chestnut,” according to Leroy Ladurie (1966).
But this was the time of the Physiocrats, who thought the soil was the only source of wealth and aimed at improving the productivity of farming by questioning all traditional rural economic processes. That chestnuts suffered at their hands is undisputable. In a query sent to provincial learned societies, François Quesnay and Victor Riqueti Mirabeau, both initiators of the Physiocratic school, asked the following questions: “Are there acorns or chestnuts used as foodstuff for pigs? Do chestnuts give a good income? Or are said chestnuts used as food for the peasants, inducing them to laziness?” (Quesnay 1888: 276). And in an agricultural text of a few decades later, the question of laziness was pursued: “To my knowledge, inhabitants of chestnut countries are nowhere friendly with work” (Bosc and Baudrillard 1821: 272). It went on to suggest that they refused to replace their trees with more productive plants because of their fear of taxation and concluded that they were not worthy citizens of the modern state.
Interestingly, the voice of François Arouet Voltaire (1785: 106) was one of the few who defended the chestnut:
[W]heat surely does not nourish the greatest part of the world. … There are in our country, whole provinces where peasants eat chestnut bread only; this bread is more nourishing and tastier than the barley or rye bread which feeds so many people and is much better for sure than the bread ration given to soldiers.
More than two hundred years later we find A. Bruneton-Governatori (1984) agreeing with Voltaire, noting that chestnuts provide a balanced diet and around 4,000 calories of energy. The condemnation the chestnut received in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries might “raise doubts about the pertinence of contemporary evidence concerning the nutrition of non-elite people.”
The half century from 1800 to 1850 was one of slow decline for the European chestnut as fewer and fewer people were interested in cultivating it, eating it, or defending it. One notes 43,000 trees uprooted in the Italian Piedmont between 1823 and 1832, and public surveyors here and there reported that chestnut-planted lands were diminishing. But following the midpoint of the nineteenth century, we have statistics in France that demonstrate vividly the magnitude of the decline. In 1852, there were 578,224 hectares of land given to chestnut cultivation; in 1892, 309,412; in 1929, 167,940; and in 1975, only 32,000 (Bruneton-Governatori 1984).
A final factor in the decline of chestnuts was doubtless the so-called ink disease, which officially began in Italy in 1842, had spread to Portugal by 1853, and reached France by 1860. The disease could kill chestnut trees in two or three years, and entire hectares of dried-up trees discouraged any notions of replanting. And, as mentioned, another disease appeared in North America to kill practically all the chestnuts there.
Thus, chestnuts went the way of so many other foods of the past as, for example, salted codfish. Once popular and cheap foods that fed many, they have now become expensive delicacies for a few.