A history of chestnut

Chestnuts have been harvested for centuries on steep slopes in the South of France.

Chestnuts have been harvested for centuries on steep slopes in the South of France. In the 20th century their production had fallen by 90%, to be recently on the rise in mountainous regions where chestnut trees symbolize historical acts of resilience (Huguenots, French Résistance during World war II).

The generic name chestnut covers a variety of fruit, among them 10 varieties of marrons and 55 of chestnuts, a cross between local and Italian species dating from the Romans. In the 10th and 11th century their culture was due to the work of monks.

The bread tree

Chestnut trees have helped to avoid famines, hence their nickname: bread tree or tree of Providence. Chestnuts were ripe in October and could be eaten till December. Fruit harvested before ripened slowly, spread on branches and leaves to be eaten till March, the rest of the harvest was dried and consumed until the following harvest.

The lost riches

For centuries chestnut trees and chestnuts have been a source of wealth. Dried chestnuts were used as currency to pay taxes, like wheat or salt, as mentioned in the 1313 Charte des Vans.

Chest nut tree growing was sorely affected by World War I, with the shortage of farmhands, industrialization and diseases. Also the modern way of life was more attractive to country people than their former hard life it was synonymous with. Today chestnuts are back, a symbol of resistance, thanks to a few enthusiasts which promote the rediscovery of a century-old fruit.

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