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.”