Until not all that long ago, chestnuts used to be very much a part of everyday life in Southern France. For the people in the more remote hillside areas, chestnuts were a staple of their diet – they would add chestnuts to stews, make them into soups, use them for making breads and pancakes and much more.
Chestnuts are high in protein and carbohydrates, but they have a very short shelf-life when fresh. To be able to eat them year round, they had to be dried in a secadou, a two-story building, roofed with slate. The floor between the two stories would be made from closely spaced iron rods or wooden batons. On the ground floor a smoldering fire would be lit, and the chestnuts would be spread out on the floor above.
The heat and smoke rose up through the floor and cured and dried the fresh chestnuts, turning them into chataignons. The outer shell and inner skin had to be stripped off the ‘nut’, partly with a machine and partly by hand, Once all that was done, the chataignons had a very long shelf life. They could be ground into flour, or rehydrated as required.
Today’s recipe is a very simple and delicious one. For each person you need five chataignons, a good handful of lambs lettuce (mache), and a heaped tablespoon of lardons. If you are unable to get chataignons, you can also use fresh chestnuts for this recipe.
If you use chataignons they need to be soaked, brought to the boil and simmered until tender. The cooking time will depend on the age of the chataignons. They should be just cooked and still hold their shape. Mine took one hour.
Blanch the lardons by dropping them into boiling water. Let the water come to the boil again, then strain, and rinse the lardons with cold water. Drain them and set aside.
Wash the lambs lettuce (mache) and dry it well with the help of a salad spinner or a tea towel.
When you are ready to serve the salad, heat a frying pan on medium heat. The pan should be large enough to hold all the ingredients in a single layer. Add a little olive oil, then add the drained chataignons and lardons. Cook slowly, gently turning the lardons and chataignons from time to time, until they are golden.
Arrange the lettuce on individual serving plates, and distribute the chataignons and lardons evenly between the plates. Add a splash of red wine vinegar to the frying pan to “deglaze” it, then pour the juices from the frying pan over the lettuce. Serve immediately. Bon Appetit!!
I bought my chataignons from Fritz and Almuth Schwaan of Ferme de Dausse, near Saint Etienne d’Albagnan. You may also find chataignons at the Fete de la Chataigne in Saint-Pons-de-Thomieres on
November October 28 and 29, 2017.