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.
The Rinaldi family, including 83-year-old Gerome Rinaldi, take part in the yearly harvest and sorting of chestnuts from their Collobrieres property. They harvest some 2,200 pounds of chestnuts each year, with only some 1,320 pounds good enough to sell.
“It’s a very small harvest,” said Jean-Michel Rinaldi, 53. “We do it to keep up the land,” in the family for generations. At about $2.35 a pound, “it brings in a little money on the side.”
Three of the Rinaldis, son Jean-Michel, mother Jacqueline and cousin Germaine Rubi, do their sorting in a little shed in the village center, dividing the large, medium and small chestnuts into low wooden boxes. Father Rinaldi keeps an eye on the operation.
“It’s a pleasure for us. We’ve always done this,” said Jean-Michel, noting that the family, like many others, harvests its chestnuts by hand. Some others use nets to catch the chestnuts as they tumble.
According to the town hall, monks of the Middle Ages took a particular interest in the trees of the Massif des Maures, which helped provide a natural defense against invaders. In the 20th century, chestnut trees became a vital source of sustenance during the world wars when even bread was a luxury, earning their nickname as trees of plenty, or literally, “bread trees.”
Today, the chestnut is still used to make flour. Even pizzas with chestnut-dough crust can be found in the Var region. More common is the autumn treat, the “chastaignade,” grilled chestnuts, or creme de marron spread and candied chestnuts, a way for families — and the world — to enjoy chestnuts throughout the year.
On the French Mediterranean island of Corsica, chestnuts are transformed into a sweet liqueur. But in Collobriere the latest chestnut drink, still in small quantities, is beer, La Marronge, named after the sweet, local chestnut.
Jartoux, with help from his two adolescent daughters, wife and other family members, makes 70 percent of his income off the chestnuts harvested on his 25 acres of land. But chestnuts are more than a business for him.
“It’s a passion,” he said by telephone, noting that he gives tours of his chestnut groves to children and adults.
“My grandfather always told us stories. The landscape he described is the same, the trees are still there,” the 42-year-old Jartoux said. “So we can visualize all the stories he told us in my childhood.”
“Chestnuts live for centuries, and we transmit these family stories from one generation to another,” he said.
In more ways than one, chestnut trees “always … helped families survive.”