Chestnuts, a French Wintertime and Festive Season Essential

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Photo: Fabienne Félix / Flickr

Of the French food items most linked to late autumn and winter, chestnuts feature prominently. The soothing smell of roasted chestnuts wafts through the air of holiday markets, the chic golden wrappers of marrons glacés glimmer in shop windows of elegant epiceries and holiday poultry stuffing is made tantalizing by the tender pieces of chataignes. Read on as we delve into the origins and uses of this versatile tree nut.

Chataignier chestnut tree. Photo: Yoann Sevestre / CC

Marron or Chataigne?

There are two words for chestnut in French, marron and chataigne. Although these terms are sometimes used interchangeably, they refer to the nut of two different species of trees, châtaignier (sweet chestnut) and marronnier (horse chestnut), the latter whose nut is not edible. Marronniers are found throughout the country and populate many Parisian parks, however, châtaigniers grow best in the south of France.

Photo: S@ndrine / Flickr

Origins in the South of France

The Cevennes mountains and its Ardèche department are particularly renowned for its excellent chestnuts. Its inhabitants have been collecting and eating chestnuts since as far back as the 10th century and have been drying the hearty nuts to make flour since the 13th century. 

Chestnuts were less available outside of the south until the arrival of train transportation in the 19th century, which allowed for regional goods, like the chestnuts of Ardèche, to reach different areas of the country. Although their popularity began waning into the 20th century with the rise of modern, mass market snacks, France is an advocate of its culinary heritage and today chestnuts are consumed in a number of ways, especially over the end of year holidays. 

Marrons Glacés. Photo: Kate Hopkins / CC

The Royal Marron Glacé

Of these various methods of preparation, marrons glacés, chestnuts candied by being cooked in sugar, have a particularly interesting history. The exact origins of this treat are unknown, however, candied chestnuts were first recorded in the 16th century in Coni, a city in the Italian of Piedmont, a mountainous region known for its nut trees.  At the time, it was under the control of the House of Savoy and a chef of Duke Charles Emmanuel I first prepared this sweet delicacy for his court.

It is not surprising that the first time marron glacé were recorded in France was during the reign of the gourmand King Louis XIV (read our Surprising Story article about dining a Versailles here). Prepared by chef François Pierre de La Varenne, author of the seminal French cookbook, Le Cuisinier françois, the sugary delights appealed to the Sun King’s sweet tooth and were then served at Versailles.

However, it was back in Ardèche in 1882 that marrons glacés were first mass produced. This was by a young entrepreneur Clément Faugier, who, three years later, ingeniously repurposed the broken pieces of nuts for crème de marrons, chestnut spread.

Candied Chestnuts from A la Mère de Famille

A Holiday Meal Essential

If you’re visiting France over the holidays, you’ll likely spot marrons or chataignes in various places on holiday menus. They can find their way into all courses, crushed atop pumpkin soup, in the stuffing of turkey or pheasant and in desserts such as ice cream or bûche de Noël, then candied chestnuts are often included with post meal coffee and chocolates.

If you’d like to purchase candied chestnuts in Paris, most high quality chocolate and confectionary shops sell them, like A la Mère de Famille, Patrick Roger and Fauchon. For other chestnut products and delicacies, visit the speciality shop L’Ardèche à Paris, found in the Marais. 

We can create a custom food tour focused on French holiday treats, which can also include French chestnuts. Contact us here for further details.

Looking for further autumn or winter French food inspiration? Check out these other articles on our site:

Wild Mushrooms, an Autumnal Passion in France

Les Potirons, France’s History and Love of Pumpkins

Foie Gras, France’s Favorite Holiday Delicacy

The History and Garden Inspirations of the Parisian Macaron

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Almost twenty-five years ago, baker, critic, and author Dorie Greenspan reported that when the French chef Pierre Hermé puts out new flavors for his macarons, “the news is announced in all the glossies and the lines outside his boutiques are so long you can finish a chunk of War and Peace before you reach the door. ” This is still true today, especially now that the French equivalent of a cookie—the macaron—has become so popular that it is found at even McDonald’s! For gourmet lovers, a macaron is a delight at any season, but this winter, Pierre Hermé launched a collection called Jardin Secret, something that garden lovers will also appreciate. Before introducing the 2023 vintages, let’s delve into the history of this exquisite treat.

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A Marie-Antoinette Inspired Holiday Gift Guide

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For this holiday season, in celebration of the publication of my book, Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy, we’ve put together a list of fabulous gift ideas honoring France’s most famous queen. Marie-Antoinette was one of the first celebrities: her taste in gardens, porcelains, fashions, and decorative arts continues to inspire fashion designers, film makers and decorators.

 

My New Book: Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy

Marie-Antoinette’s Legacy, The Politics of French Garden Patronage and Picturesque Design, 1775-1867, is the ideal gift idea for those looking for a modern perspective on Marie-Antoinette. My book examines how Marie-Antoinette’s trendsetting garden design at the Petit Trianon, Versailles significantly changed French garden history. Despite the queen’s regicide during the French Revolution, her gardens survived. Inspired by the queen’s legacy, three empresses, Joséphine, Marie-Louise and Eugénie, forged their own garden projects at Versailles and Malmaison. Learn more about the book and acquire a copy here.

Gift Certificate: Exclusive Marie-Antoinette Tours

What’s better than reading about gardens? Visiting them! If someone you know is planning a trip to Paris in the coming year, then there is no better gift than one of my tours. One of my tours is entirely dedicated to the queen at Versailles, where we visit the Petit Trianon and the surrounding gardens.  At the Petit Trianon and Hameau, you will learn how the the gardens became one of most enchanting and misunderstood sites in French history.  Reach out to us here to purchase a gift certificate or arrange a custom tour.

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The Queen’s Chocolates – Debauve & Gallais

Established by the chocolatier and pharmacist of the Queen, this confectionery shop is one of the oldest in Paris. Among their selection of high-quality chocolates are Marie-Antoinette pistoles; thin, round chocolate tablets created by Sulpice Debauve for the Queen. The assortment box comes with pistoles of dark chocolate as well as ones of different flavors such as vanilla, ginger or earl gray. You can purchase them in their various boutiques in Paris or online here.

Marie-Antoinette plate

Versailles Replica Dessert Plate

For anyone who loves French pastries in addition to la Reine, consider purchasing one of these “mise en abyme” porcelain plates. The beautifully-crafted plates reproduce designs from the royal table art collections and are made in the prestigious French porcelain mecca of Limoges. This dessert plate represents les Animal Fabuleux, and is the perfect service dish for a refined Marie-Antoinette tea party. These plates are available on the Musées de France online boutique.

La Savonnerie Royale

For excellent French soaps and candles with a royal twist, peruse the offerings of La Savonnerie Royale. The Official Museum Supplier of le Chateau, this renowned company based in Provence, draws its inspiration from the Palace of Versailles, its history and gardens. Their Pétales d’Eglantine line, made of delicate rose fragrance with musk and woody notes, was created in honor of Marie-Antoinette, who adored roses.

Marie-Antoinette tea

Nina’s Marie Antoinette Tea

Originally specialized in distilling natural essential oils, Nina’s Paris has roots dating back to 1672. Nicknamed the “Magician of Fragrances,” its founder Pierre Diaz began supplying his fragrances to  the Royal Court of Versailles, including Marie-Antoinette favorite, rose. Today the company’s focus is on tea, including le Thé de Marie-Antoinette, the only tea in the world flavored with rose petals and fresh apples from the Royal Gardens of Versailles. To produce this, Nina’s Paris is the exclusive partner of Le Potager du Roi. If you can’t purchase via their website for international delivery, there are some options on Amazon.

Marie-Antoinette Tapestry Pouch

Your giftee can have Marie-Antoinette always with her thanks to this stylish pouch. Inspired by a detail from Marie-Antoinette’s head-board, the design features roses and lilies, tied with a garland of cornflowers. In 1786, when Marie-Antoinette decided to refresh the textiles of the summer furnishing of her royal bedroom and this beautiful design, created by Lyonnais embroiderer Jean-François Bony, was the result. The pattern is the only original element of this refurbishment which survived the Revolution. Purchase it through the Chateau de Versailles at this link.

Happy Holidays and we look forward to seeing you in 2023!

Wild Mushrooms, an Autumnal Passion in France

cèpes at the market

Autumn in France means the arrival of wild mushrooms overflowing from the stalls of market vendors. However, not everyone purchases their champignons des bois… foraging in France’s majestic forests is still very much a passionate hobby of the French and on many autumn weekends French families can be found, wicker basket in hand, meandering through the woods in search of these fungal delights. Whether you would like to take part in this culinary pastime or would simply like to savor them on your assiette, here is an overview of French wild mushrooms, some common dishes they are found in and where you can go foraging near Paris.

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The Best Artisanal Ice Cream in Paris

Bac à Glace

Photo: Bac à Glace / Facebook

With summer upon us and temperatures rising, there’s nothing more refreshing while strolling in Paris than an ice cream. Although it was brought to France from Italy, the French have a great fondness for la glace. It is therefore not surprising to find a number of wonderful glaciers across the city who dedicate themselves masterfully to the art of ice cream. From historic to the avant garde, here’s where you can get the best artisanal ice cream in Paris.

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Paris Meets Brooklyn: The Global Reach of Contemporary American Dining

Melt Restaurant 75017

French food is a powerful signifier of French culture, inspiring tourists and international foodies to travel to France to taste authentic ingredients and enjoy exceptional dining experiences.  In the last fifteen years, food critics and tastemakers agree that the global food business, which permits the regular importation and exportation of regional ingredients and encourages chefs to experiment with new techniques, has challenged the hegemony of French cuisine and dining.  Fabio Parasecoli and Mateusz Halawa’s new book  Global Brooklyn: Designing Food Experiences in World Cities (2021) recently asked food historians around the world to discuss how these new food-ways, honed in Brooklyn, New York, influence today’s cuisine.  I was pleased to participate in this fascinating study and I am sharing a section of my essay dedicated to the advent of Global Brooklyn in Paris. 

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Foie Gras, France’s Favorite Holiday Delicacy

Foie Gras Laguilhon

France takes its gastronomy extremely seriously, and this is especially true when it comes to the end-of-year holidays. Of all the holiday delicacies that might feature on the festive menus in French homes and restaurants, foie gras is a must. Despite the controversies surrounding it, there’s no denying that it is highly cherished by the French. Read more

Les Potirons, France’s History and Love of Pumpkins

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While pumpkins are generally associated with the Americas, and rightfully so, the French have a particularly strong affection for this New World vegetable. Although you will never find a pumpkin pie served for dessert in a French home, in autumn the country’s markets abound in every shape and size of pumpkin. Here is how this fondness of potirons came to be and a recipe for the preferred way for the French to consume pumpkins, in a velouté, a thick and creamy soup.

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Surprising Stories: Chantilly Cream

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Chantilly cream is a crowd-pleaser: from a dollop on fresh summer berries to a transformative spoonful that makes a cup of coffee into a tantalizing dessert, Chantilly cream is a world renown gastronomic delight. This week’s Surprising Story looks at the history of this Chantilly cream—whipped milk combined with sugar—and how it was concocted for celebrations at the most famous garden parties in seventeenth and eighteenth century France.

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