COLLOBRIERES, France -- Forget summer and the seaside in the south of France. Instead, hit the back country in autumn and go on a treasure hunt for one of nature’s little beauties, a mahogany-colored jewel hidden in a prickly shell that falls from the treetops.
Chestnuts were once a staple of life in hard times in parts of France. Today, they are a treat, and a favorite for the end-of-year holidays, fire-roasted or candied, or transformed into creamy sauces or scrumptious jams — some even drinkable like liqueur or beer.
In the heart of France’s chestnut country, the trees stand like guardians of family memories and, like the vineyards of Bordeaux, embody the soul of the land.
The time for harvesting these fragile fruits, which have a short lifespan when fresh, is especially magical. Sorting the good from the bad and by size is a work-intensive operation lasting about a month, from the start of October to early November. And it’s most always a family affair.
“The trees I have here are 400 to 500 years old,” says Laurent Jartoux, a major chestnut grower in Collobrieres in the hilly backlands of the Var region behind the Mediterranean coast, known as the Massif des Maures. “They’re anchored in the histories of the families.”
Most everyone has chestnut trees on their land, and the town, with a population of less than 2,000, holds Chestnut Festivals yearly on the last three Sundays of October.
Chestnuts grow in several regions of France, but the locals of the Massif des Maures vaunt their special variety, the marronge, as the sweetest. Certainly, the scenery is sweet — nature untamed.
Lush hilly terrain marks the scrubland, overgrown with vegetation from gnarled trees to wild herbs, a landscape known in France as the “garrigue.” Small roads winding through the hills lead to the capital of the Maures region, Collobrieres, dubbed the chestnut capital of southern France.
Getting there offers the best of two worlds — beach and back country – since the most practical starting point for the journey is on the coast, in Toulon or Hyeres, where cars can be rented, or nearby in Le Lavandou, a picturesque town sitting on an azure-colored bay of the Mediterranean.
The brief trip is sure to be filled with spontaneous stops — the first in the medieval hillside town of Bormes-les-Mimosas, overlooking the sea. From Bormes, the narrow and twisting scenic route through the back country, the Col de Babaou, unveils new vistas at every turn.
The eye moves across expanses of emerald green with patches of fiery autumn colors flashing through, often with vineyards surrounding a homestead in a distant clearing. Around a corner, rows of cork oak trees, their lower trunks bare, come into view like a line of half-naked soldiers, their bark harvested and transformed into a variety of products, including decorative shallow bowls.
Then, there they are. Chestnuts!
Large green burrs lie on the asphalt or peek through the fallen leaves and scrub beside the road or hang heavy on the branches overhead. Touch with care, or with gloves. They are prickly. Open the casing with the feet, just like some small growers. Out pops the fruit, most often a trio of brown nuts nestled side by side.
There are some 4,945 acres of chestnut trees in the Massif des Maures, much of them growing wild, according to Baptiste Fricau of the Collobrieres town hall. Much of the untreated crop — more than 40 percent in some years — can be inedible, stricken by parasites.