II.D.1. - Chestnuts
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
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 worlds leading chestnut producer.
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.
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
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.
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).
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).
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. Napoleons choice, however, was to make sugar from
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.
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.
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:
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).
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.
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.
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 51Ž2 tons
of fruit (Hombres-Firmas 1838).
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 days main meal.
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.
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.
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" (Buchoz
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:
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).
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).
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: 1334) 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
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
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).
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.
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.
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 178789,
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 21Ž2 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 châtaigne.
Such a diet represented "The International of Misery and
Chestnut," according to Leroy Ladurie (1966).
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.
the voice of François Arouet Voltaire (1785: 106) was one
of the few who defended the chestnut:
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.
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."
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).
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.
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.
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