The 22nd annual Chestnut Festival took place recently in Désaignes on a beautiful autumn week end with just enough colour in the trees and nip in the evening air to make this the perfect moment for bringing out the chestnut roasters and laying in stocks of nuts, apples and potatoes against the winter.
The whole village was taken over with stands, exhibitions and demonstrations. The forge was working as were the ancient machines making sabots. There were enthusiastic old chaps making ropes and tinkering away with Heath Robinson types of Puffing Billies.
Then there were pony rides for the children, roundabouts, presentations of the latest in roof insulation and construction by the local carpenter, even new cars on display under the plane trees in the school playground.
Traffic was warned that it approached Désaignes at its peril: the main road through the village remained open but through traffic definitely had to take its chances with the more important business of selling pigeons and barnyard fowls, carting sacks about or just strolling with a cornet of hot chestnuts.
Right at the top of the village the magnificent roasting contraption had been set up and was blazing away. 500kg of chestnuts were given away free, along with a little glass of this year’s cuveé de la foire.
These are not just chestnuts they are AOC Ardèche chestnuts. The label was awarded in 2006 and the Ardèche produces 5,000 tons of them a year, which is 50% of the French annual production. There are around 1000 farmers who cultivate the trees either full time or as part of a more mixed production. This year was a tough one for them, with the yield down by 30-50% because the glorious hot dry Indian summer conditions through September and October did not allow the nuts to develop properly. There was the same problem with walnuts this year – what was set to be bumper crop dried on the branches and did not fall. The chestnuts are also threatened by a nasty littly asiatic wasp which lays its eggs in the dormant buds. This beast has only recently made it up here from Italy where it apparently arrived in a cargo shipment about 8 years ago. Another type of wasp which lays its eggs in the eggs of the first one, destroying them, is thought to be the only way of protecting the trees, and they are being released into the forests. Of course one has to hope that this one is well intentioned towards the Ardèche farmers and doesn’t have an additional sting up its sleeve – or in its tail.