Sweet Tooth

Candied Chestnuts, a French Christmas Classic

During the holidays in France, the candied chestnut enjoys its moment in the spotlight – it even made a cameo appearance between Adrien Brody's fingers in the Wes Anderson film The French Dispatch! Both creamy and soft, this generously-sized nut is traditionally candied in sugar syrup and vanilla to transform it into a prized treat.
© Philippe Barret/Sabaton

Candied chestnuts are luxury confections characterized by their translucent flesh bathed in sugary liquid, and were reserved exclusively for the elite up until the 19th century. They became more widely popular in Ardèche thanks to artisans from the villages of Privas and Aubenas. This region was renowned for its chestnut groves, and the first candied chestnut factory was founded in 1882 by Clément Faugier, who developed industrial manufacturing processes while continuing to use traditional techniques.

Even today, confectioners such as Sabaton, founded in 1907, continue to use the Ardèche Chestnut (which has Protected Designation of Origin status) to make their candies. Christophe Sabaton still uses the ancestral recipe passed down to him by his grandfather. The chestnuts undergo a faster candying process and so cannot be kept for as long as others, but the resulting authentic nutty flavors are well worth it. Christophe Sabaton ensures his products are the very best, competing with other French artisans at major candy brands that often source their chestnuts from Naples or Turin.

The preparation of candied chestnuts is long and delicate, and two pounds of raw materials are required to produce one pound of the confection. Everything begins with a careful selection process. After removing the husks, the nuts are soaked in water for a week, then slowly dried in a cellar. The artisans envelop them in a tulle muslin fabric to protect them while they are cooked. The candied nuts are then drained, crystalized with sugar and vanilla, and roasted for a few seconds.

Mysterious Origins

Italians swear the candied chestnut comes from Cuneo, in the Piedmont region, where it supposedly arrived in the travel cases of Catherine de’ Medici. But the French claim it was invented in Versailles at the court of Louis XIV in 1667. According to the French legend, the chef Pierre-François de la Varenne accidently cooked a chestnut with sugar, as described in his work Le Parfait confiturier. His inadvertent error resulted in the creation of this sugar-coated delicacy. But the people of Lyon reject both versions, maintaining that the candied chestnut dates back even further. It was supposedly born in Lyon, the former capital of Gaul, in the 15th century, when an abundance of the nuts in the area coincided with the arrival of sugar in France. At the time, chestnuts were candied, but not crystalized in sugar, and the tastes have remained the same in the region to this very day.

Candied chestnuts are fragile due to their freshness, and are not suited to heat or humidity. They should be kept in a cool, dry place, such as at the bottom of the refrigerator, for no more than two months. The Corsiglia family have been confectioners since 1896, and are masters of making exceptional candied chestnuts. Sixth-generation artisan Alexandre Corsiglia knows every trick in the book: “Delicately open the candied chestnut to reveal the nut’s tender, whole center. Never eat the chestnut whole or cut it with a knife, as the incision made with the blade or the teeth will whiten the nut’s flesh and make it seem dry!”

And, one last thing before commencing the festivities: While candied chestnuts are incredibly delicious, moderation is advised as they are also highly calorific! Happy holidays!

Article published in the December 2017 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.