There is a deep love affair between the French and chestnuts. Chestnut trees are quite a common sight in France whereas they are remarkebly absent from the American landscape: it turns out the American chestnut trees were virtually decimated by disease at the turn of the century. The nuts themselves are not considered a staple of the American diet and are rarely highlighted on the grocers' shelves.
In Paris, street vendors sell their "cornets " of fresh roasted chestnuts to passers by so they can warm up their hands and their lungs on cold winter days. At home, we drill holes in a thick frying pan to roast chestnuts on the stove; or bake them in the oven on a cookie sheet and savor them with a large glass of cider. Whole chestnuts accompany chicken, turkey, goose and guinea hen; chestnut flour is used to make patties and bread; unsweetened chestnut purée is served as a side dish (just blend in a little bit of meat juice); crème de marrons, a sweet chestnut spread flavored with vanilla, lends itself to making wonderful desserts. The French are so fond of chestnuts that the production from the traditional regions such as Lozère, Ardèche and Corrèze cannot meet the national demand and imported chestnuts from Italy have become more prevalent.
Marron glacé: king of sweets? Candied chestnuts, a traditional Christmas treat, may be the best-known French confections. In order to become moist and succulent marrons glacés, chestnuts must go through a lengthy and labor intensive process that explains the prices charged for this confection. First the thick outer skins of fresh chestnuts are peeled by a machine; then the chestnuts are immersed in hot water so that all the inner skins can be removed by hand. The chestnuts are wrapped in cheesecloth in pairs and cooked in water for about one and a half hour. They are immerged in a light syrup flavored with real vanilla. Over an eight to ten day period, the chestnuts are regularly immerged in syrup of gradually higher concentrations until each nut is thoroughly saturated. After being drained and cooled, the chestnuts are covered with a thin coat of sugar icing that will prevent them from drying out. To make one pound of marrons glacés, two pounds of raw chestnuts are required (there is a lot of waste; the skin alone represent 22% of the weight). Many of them break during the sweetening process. The broken chestnuts are sold as "brisures".
Our recipes with chestnuts:
Turkey stuffed with Chestnuts-Dinde farcie aux Marrons
Chestnut Mousse-Mousse aux Marrons
Mont Blanc-Mont Blanc