Causses & Cévennes - sud Massif Central

Causses Cévennes

Vacation in the Gorges du Tarn, Causses & Cevennes

The history of the chestnut tree in the Cevennes

First of all I would like to present myself ...  
I am a beautiful noble tree, with interesting fruits if you want...... the undeniable friend of men...
Our mutual respect and maintenance did create a durable harmonic bond.....
I live in France since at least miocene-period...
I’m feeling very well between 300 and 800 hundred meters altitude if is to produce beautiful fruits. Above this altitude, also some of the very varied exposures of the Central Massif and neighbourhoods please me ; At some places even for fruits, but in general at height I am rather cultivated for wood or the tanin.

I am productive and of few demandings in the matter of ground; I’m adapting well on acid ground and even to a poor ground.
I like a rather hot climate : - Mediterranean (hot summer and dryness), - the maritime Atlantic (soft winter and rainy summer) or continental (rigorous winter and hot summer) for different varieties. 

I like light and fresh grounds, I hate too wet, to compact, calcareous or badly aired grounds.
Thus all the areas of old geological origin are appropriate to me.
In the Cevennes that corresponds with the 4 departments occupied by the Celts: Aveyron, Gard, Herault and Lozere and last butl not least, the Ardeche.
I am sensible to early frost in autumn or winter and vulnerable for cold temperatures during the female flowering in spring.
I fear great cold and fogs.
My toothed and lengthened sheets appear relatively late, May on the average.
Off June I have long males catkins and female flowers whose desiccated stigma’s will form "the torch" of the fruit, opposed to the "scar" or ‘’umbilicus’’.
For beautiful fruits I will have to be grafted.
I reach my full maturity at 35 years, I remain good producer up to 70 years and can become the age of several centuries, eh yes... My sweet chestnuts called ‘’chataignes’’, are more traditional than the bigger chestnuts named ‘’marrons’’. The taste of the ‘’chataigne’’ is good to very good, and in former days their size corresponded to the average techniques of handling, transformations and conservation

The principal difference between sweet chestnut ‘’marrons’ and ‘’chataignes’’ is the bigger size of the ’marrons’ and an inferior pourcentage or absence of partition-walls. (when the skin cuts almond inside to form two or more fruits.)
The French standard today grants the name of chestnuts (chataignes) or sweet chestnuts (marrons) is a partition less than 12%. In other countries other criteria are valid.
Their consumption differs too. Each year I’m improved in accordance to the demands of my amateurs…

In France, my history starts about year 1000 Chestnut trees in the Cevennes
Both the extension of agriculture and the increase of population are the result of a climate reheating in the Xth century.
The monastic structure is a real success in this time, mainly because it’s the only place of instruction. Already several axes of pilgrimage cross in the area, often traced on the track passing by the peaks like the ‘’drailles’’ (track of the traditional yearly sheep-migration - ‘transhumance’’= the migration; off spring till autumn). The rush towards the monasteries starts to make them overflow, including lodging and food-problems.

Then the Cevennes became the land of reception to many little monastic orders of the Gevaudan and Montpellier
The Cevennes monasteries were better able to ensure the subsistence of their inhabitants.


They are primarily Benedictines and sometimes cistercians who start to build the first lay-out of the most farms, hamlets and villages in the Cevennes, initially like priories. It’s also their merit to start the history of the chestnut orchard (la châtaigneraie) of the Cevennes.
They construct farmhouses and retaining walls for teraces. They cut the forest and plant, graft and maintain chestnuts trees.
As remainder of the founders, multiple villages bear names of Saints.

Thus an autarkical system based on sweet chestnut will reign some centuries; with their orchards, kitchen-gardens, goats, sheep, pigs, hens, bees, the Cevennes suffice to themselves.

In the region the number of bishopries was very considerable. These dioceses were often owners and lords at the same time, which confers a great power to them, the land but also it’s commerce , like the management of the sweet chestnut trade. 1348: to avoid the prevalent disease of plague and plunderings by the muleteers (transporting donkey drivers), certain communes are isolating themselves.
1350 In spite of the religious and political wars and popular disorders during the centuries which follow, the economy prospers. With the rise of the trade the country is reopened.

In addition to sweet chestnuts, the Serges and cadis of Gévaudan (pieces of woven wool manufactured at the house) gave the families a small additional income.
At the same time, the Faculty of Medicine of Montpellier acquires a great fame in the speciality of pharmaceutical chemistry.

XVI century: The progression of the chestnut tree is a fact, it cannot be charted precisely yet because of the closed feudal system.
The chestnut orchard takes the place of the Mediterranean forest which consisted of black oaks, sometimes alternated with cereals and vines, it becomes the most significant arboriculture.
Thanks to sweet chestnuts, the Cevennes never known famine, contrary to the North Lozere in 1709.

1750-1850 the golden age of the Cevennes economy, the roads are arranged and the commerce establishes permanent relations and trade with the plain, the Rhone-valley and the Mediterranean.
In 1840 the longest railway track connects La Grand Combe to Beaucaire.

About 1850 the sweet chestnut goes through it’s golden age. It becomes the base of food, this explains its surname bread-tree (l’arbre a pain).
Its fruits nourish a population of high density.
des blanchettesThanks to the sweet chestnuts, silk and mines, the Cevennes reach the highest density ever known : 35 habitants per square km.

The sweet chestnut thrives; the production in the lozerien part formes an arc of circle around Saint Germain de Calberte, and extended till far in the back-country, until Ispagnac.
France produces around 500 000 T
The dried sweet chestnuts (bajanes - bajanas- blanchettes - châtaignons) are the only currency of exchange during a moment.
The ‘whities’ (blanchettes) were exchanged against wheat of the calcareous grounds, cheese of the highlands, olives and salt of the plains.
The harvest, of mid- October until the end December, is made by the whole family. The assistance of the neighbours and others was paid ‘’half-fruits’’, the half of their recolte.
The great exploitations employed workmen engaged at the ‘’renting place’’ (place a la loue / louer=renting) at the time of big fairs, like those of Barre of the Cevennes and Les Ayres.
The working contract (lòga - loues=seasonal engagement) were decided during the 3 Sundays of festivals between the end of September and at the beginning of October.)
Like single wages, the employees - who were nourished and lodged during the season, received blanchettes.
Also hiring of a patch of land was regulated in nature, by a certain number of days of collecting chestnuts.
In particular Caussenards (of the Causses- the table plateau highlands) who did not have much work at this season, appreciated the occasion to work and thus to diversify their winter provisions.

The disease of ink ‘La maladie de l’encre‘

Off 1870 the ink-disease appears and damage seriously the chestnut orchard.
A mould on the roots causes a bluish black exudation, looking like ink, and the tree dies at it’s summit. The so-called Phytophthora devastates.
Especially the lower areas are touched. To compensate for the loss of income, the farmers increase their herd, sell their trees to the tanin factories and thus accelerate the deforestation. Research
About 1900, they introduce species and varieties of Asia to overcome the disease.
George Couderc of Ardeche, already known in the vine growing by his research of seedlings resisting to phylloxera, also invests himself in the chestnut-culture by observation of hybrid varieties.

The need for pickets

At the end of the crisis of phylloxera (vineyard-disease), the vine growing florishes in the plains and demands a great number of pegs.
These pickets are made of ‘bouscasses’ ungrafted’ chestnut trees, or grafted old ones of which they cut the center. This make growth the rejections under the graft, which push quickly and straight to the sky.
Another factor of degradation of the chestnut wood is the rigorous demolition of the chestnuts for the tanin factory.

The rural excodus and the abandonment of the chestnut orchard
In 1911 remain only 20 habitants/km2
Between 1930 and 1950, another great number of inhabitants leaves when the mines and blast furnaces (metallurgy) close one after another.

The fall in prices about 1930, the competition with other cultures and the financial possibility to diversify the meals corrodes a little more the popularity of the sweet chestnut.
During the war the bread-tree again nourishes the population and the decline is stabilized during a few years.
Again much of men died during the war. And again the tree prevents the famine.
Around 1950, the rural migration takes dramatic proportions, and the production stops almost completely.

The chestnut was used for:
- the manufacture of linseed cake for soup for porcine breeding, sold at the fairs of the lower Cevennes (Anduze)
- the manufacture of sweet chestnut alcohol (like in the departments of the North of France which used beet)
- exploitation for the tanin, extracted in the factories from St Jean of Gard, Vigan and Génolhac, which closed one after the other in the Sixties.

Finally, the appearance of the canker of the bark about 1960 seems to be the death-blow for the chestnut groves.
Canker of the bark - Endothia - Cryphonectria parasitica - is a mushroom which makes die wood with the summit and the ends of the branches.
This disease can be fought by treatment and/or pruning, partial or severe according to the extent of the disease.
The INRA and Ctifl (interprofessional technical Center of the fruit and vegetables) work on grafting and hybrids.
Fortunately the decline stopped.
The culture has been saved and re-started and with pleasure you can admire pretty chestnut orchards and eat fruits of a fine and appreciable taste....

The culture, the restoration, the maintenance and the creation of the orchards, and the consumption of sweet chestnuts are back in the usages, before having been really disappeared.

There is a new interest for the tree and its fruits to which the Cevennes thanks so much.
The Cevennes chestnut culture is without any doubt a social, cultural, economic, ecological pillar , a very appreciated heritage.
The chestnut takes a significant and remarkable place in fabulous architectural landscape which our ancestors left us.
We sincerely we’re hoping on many new national, regional and departmental initiatives - for the Lozere, Gard and Ardeche to the honour and protection of the chestnut, its health, its fruits, its environment and its thousand years of history...