The Pellegrina is a variety of the Castanea sativa species of the Fagaceae family. The tree can reach more than 30 meters (98 feet) in height and has very distinctive large ovoid leaves, heavily ribbed and toothed. The catkins begin to flower from March.
The shale soils of south-central France’s Cévennes mountains are home to around 30 traditional chestnut varieties, including Barbue, Belle Epine, Burnette, Coutinelle, Dauphine and Figarette. Of these, the Pellegrina is the most typical. The low rainfall makes it very difficult to plant hybrid varieties of chestnuts, but the traditional varieties are well adapted to the Cévennes climate.
The Pellegrina chestnut is grown mainly in the Lozère area of the Cévennes and in Lugannais, a small area in the Gard. The chestnuts are oblong shaped and small, measuring 2 to 4 centimeters (4/5 inch to 1 1/2 inches), with a small tuft at the end.
Pellegrina chestnuts have a sweet, intense, lingering flavor. Fresh and dried chestnuts can smell of caramel or warm bread, while the dried chestnuts also have a nutty aroma.
Pellegrina chestnuts are sold fresh at local markets, such as the chestnut fair in Saint-Germain-de-Calberte in November. These varieties are not exported abroad, as their production is much lower than demand. Dried in the traditional clèdes, the chestnuts can also be ground into flour for baking.
Chestnut groves have always been a symbol of the local identity for this area. The first chestnut groves began to be planted in the Cévennes from the 11th century, replacing the beech and oak forests. Chestnuts were a daily part of the diet at the time. However, after the 14th century, variations in the climate, plague epidemics and wars led to a severe demographic recession and a partial abandonment of the chestnut groves. Later, in the 16th century, the strong growth of the Cévennes population led to an extension of the chestnut groves, which became a main food resource for the villages and contributed to the resilience of the Cévennes during periods of conflict, in particular the Camisardi war. The year 1709 remains impressed in the local memory, as a severe frost ruined the chestnut groves and caused a terrible famine.
It was towards the middle of the 19th century that the expansion of chestnut groves reached its peak. The inhabitants of the Cévennes planted many trees, diversifying the varieties in order to better adapt them to the climate, and often practiced forms of agriculture complementary to chestnut cultivation, such as raising flocks of sheep to graze under the chestnut trees after the harvest.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the emergence of diseases, the exploitation of tannins extracted from the wood and the exodus to the towns led to a sharp decline in chestnut cultivation. Many owners left the Cévennes and sold their chestnut groves to tannin manufacturers. The orchards were quickly transformed into coppices.
Today, climate change is further threatening the remaining chestnut groves of the Cévennes. Severe water stress not only affects production, but also threatens the very survival of the tree. Chestnut diseases and parasites—ink disease, bark cancer, the pathogenic beetle Balaninus elephas and the gall wasp Dryocosmus kuriphilus—are also a serious threat factor.