The name sweet chestnut is given to the cultivated varieties of chestnut whose fruit consists of a single large kernel. This large chestnut should not be confused with the inedible horse chestnut, which has an outer capsule, known as a burr, covered in large spikes. The main chestnut producing regions in France are Rhône-Alpes, Aquitaine and Languedoc-Roussillon. Chestnuts from Ardèche, a name encompassing 65 traditional varieties, have had PDO status since 2006.
Buy chestnuts that are heavy and firm, with a shiny shell. Discard any chestnuts with holes in their shells, which is a sign of small worms. Look for Ardèche PDO chestnuts for guaranteed quality. Choose the Sardonne or Precoce des Vans varieties. Avoid hybrid varieties (Larigoule, Bouche de Bétizac), which have less flavor.
If you are not sure whether your chestnuts are fresh, immerse them in water. Any with worms or that are rotten will float to the surface. To remove the shell, cut a notch into the rounded part with a well-sharpened chef’s knife That will make them easy to peel once cooked.
The notched chestnuts are cooked over embers or in the oven. Roast for 20 minutes at 220°C, then peel while still hot. Chestnuts are a traditional garnish for the Christmas turkey in France. They are pan-fried with chopped onions and lardons to accompany white meats and roasts. Chestnuts are used to make marrons glacés by glazing after being cooked in syrup.
Chestnuts do not keep for much longer than fresh fruit. Store them for up to a week in the vegetable crisper drawer of the refrigerator in a paper bag. Peeled chestnuts can be frozen.
Comballe chestnuts have a white and very sweet flesh. They can be grilled or made into jam. Bouche-Rouge chestnuts are grown in the Ardèche regions and are renowned for their flavor. They are mainly used to make marrons glacés. They also enjoy PDO status.