The Deep Heart Of The Ardèche
“Bienvenue au fin fond de l’Ardèche” our hostess said, as we straggled in bleary-eyed and trembling. Welcome to the deepest most remote corner of the Ardèche, a region already known for its wild and rugged isolation. This was actually not her bathtub, rest assured. This is her neighbor’s bathtub.
We weren’t immediately thrilled by it all, having been lost in the pitch dark on serpentine mountain roads barely wide enough for two small cars, for the better part of an hour. For once, Mandy, our trusty GPS, was in a complete dither, sending us hither and yon in her always-assured voice, even though she was as lost as we were.
The next day we saw a little advisory that said “GPS doesnt work very well around here, better use a map,” and although it was too late to salvage our arrival trip, you’d have thought we’d be able to avoid getting lost in the dark again on the way out. Mais non, not at all. “I have no (insert expletive of your choice) idea where we are,” said my normally compass-oriented husband. And indeed, neither did Mandy. That’s how far off the beaten path the Ardèche is.
We’d come to the tiny town of Marcols-les-Eaux for their annual chestnut festival, not out of any special desire to visit the hard-scrabble village clinging to the side of a mountain, but because it was the last of the year’s chestnut festivals and if we didn’t see this one, we’d have to wait until next year. In fact, we’re still more or less waiting for next year’s festival, since this one was too sparsely attended to be really festive, on a day when the temperature hovered between 3°C and 6°C, with a few showers tossed in to add to the merriment.
The Ardèche is France’s leading chestnut growing area, producing about 5000 metric tonnes per year, half of all the chestnuts grown in France.
As you might already know, chestnuts grow inside a prickly self defense system that would deter even the most calloused hands, so they cannot easily be picked from the tree.
Therefore the rugged countryside is dotted with blue nets spread under the trees to catch the falling nuts. We were a little late in the year and most of the chestnut harvest was over, although it was tempting to pick up a few nuts that remained on the ground. Fortunately, Shel had seen a notice warning that collecting chestnuts would result in a severe penalty, and emphasizing the fact that each and every nut belongs to someone and is a result of their hard work, so we contented ourselves with having chestnuts in virtually every dish we ate while we were there. Dishes like pork terrine with chestnuts, pork filet mignon sautéed with chestnuts, vegetables garnished with chestnuts, chestnut cake, and chestnut tart kept chestnuts on our mind night and day.
At the chestnut museum in the cute little town of Joyeuse, we had learned more than we’d ever imagined knowing about chestnuts. How in the old days they were beaten out of their shells by war club-like pestles in a mortar made of chestnut wood,
or stomped loose with wickedly spiked boots, which I imagine was a great way to work out the aggressions engendered by the hard life of a chestnut grower.
The Ardèchois chestnuts have an appellation contrôlée designation, and come in five basic forms besides fresh: dried whole fruit, dried crumbs, chestnut flour, preserved whole chestnuts, and chestnut purée.
After the chestnuts are all eaten the beautiful chestnut wood doesn’t go to waste, and long ago it was used to make these wine casks shaped perfectly to be comfortably carried by a donkey,
and my personal favorite, this chestnut bench. It was placed by the fire with the drawers full of chestnuts to keep them warm and dry. The little curved openings were for the chestnut farmer’s cats, who nestled snugly inside, keeping warm and protecting the harvest from rodents, and perhaps sneaking a stray chestnut treat here and there.
I’ll be continuing with tales of the Ardèche, because we saw and did a lot that didn’t involve the delightful nut, but not until after we pause for this little chestnut commercial. After all, ’tis the season.
Get yourself some fresh chestnuts and roast them. Eat them by the fire with a glass of good wine. Get some in a jar or a can, chop them roughly, sauté the pieces with a bit of pancetta or bacon, and scatter them on a creamy chestnut soup. Get a jar of sweetened chestnut purée, whip up a cloud of cream, and carefully blend the two together. Take the creamy chestnut mousse and use it to fill tart shells, or spread it on genoise or poundcake. Add chestnuts to your Thanksgiving stuffing or your side dish of Brussels sprouts. Buy chestnut creme in a tube and spread it on your morning toast. Chestnuts are the little brown dress that goes well with everything at this time of year, so go ahead, dress for dinner.
And remember, the chestnut you eat is the product of someone’s hard work. Don’t waste a bite, and guard them well from any critters your house may harbor.
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