Chestnut harvesting in the old days, as told by Lorette Défago, who was born in Choëx above Monthey in 1940. Chestnuts were a very important staple for the inhabitants of Troistorrents and Choëx.

Transcribed with her kind permission. What she experienced when she was young, so that it will not be forgotten.

“Most families in Troistorrents owned or rented chestnut forests in Choëx, Vers Ensier, or Les Neyres. The work began in the first week of October. First, the forests had to be prepared for the harvest. This meant mowing the grass between the trees and creating small, horizontal windrows with the cut grass. This would help keep the falling chestnuts from rolling down the steep forest slopes. We also had to prepare the ‘chestnut sticks’—long, slender poles of various lengths used to shake the chestnuts out of the trees. The person shaking the trees could use shorter, and therefore lighter poles, for closer branches. These poles were stored in barns and galleries (the balconies of chalets) during the winter and placed in the field before the harvest. That way, they could absorb moisture from the cut grass and gain flexibility so that they would not break when used to shake the chestnut tree branches.

When the fruits were ripe, around October 10th, harvest day started at dawn. Everyone had to make their way on foot, sometimes over long distances, often singing along the way. Each person carried their load: poles, iron tips, chestnut tongs, baskets, and sacks for collecting the husks. Almost everyone also carried a picnic bag with their meals for the day.

The tree shaker would start the work first. Wearing shoes with iron claws tied on with string, he climbed the chestnut trees. Then, he would shake or tap the branches with the poles. It was hard and dangerous work that not everyone could do.

The husks fell more or less easily depending on the year and weather conditions; after fog or rain, the work was easier. The women and children gathered the fallen husks using metal or wooden tongs, without gloves, and placed the chestnuts in large baskets. Most husks were closed, which was preferable; only a few opened, letting out their chestnuts (the black ones). They were collected along with the husks and put into small bags attached to the belt. These fruits were not suitable for storage, so they were consumed immediately or sold at the market in Monthey.

Once the baskets were full, they were emptied into a designated area, ideally a hollow, flat spot, almost always the same from one year to the next. The tree shaker and the workers on the ground continued working until the last tree in the forest had been harvested. The pile, called the ‘husk heap’, grew accordingly. As the distance from the pile increased, the contents of the baskets were poured into a large chestnut carrier, and a man transported it to the husk heap.

The work was done over two or three days, depending on the size of the forest, but always continuously from morning till nightfall, with a long walk home each time, carrying baskets full of chestnuts in the dark of night.  

When every last tree was shaken and all of the chestnuts piled up, we covered the heap. Often this task was done by the tree shaker who had finished his job. For this, he would cut large branches growing at the base of the chestnut trees or bushes that had no business being there. He would lay them on the husk heap, the heaviest wood at the bottom, pressing them against the husks, and continued all around until they were no longer visible. The whole pile was then covered with large stones to add weight and hold everything together in case of wind. This served two purposes: to aid in the fermentation of the chestnuts, which helped preserve them, and to keep the forest clean by cutting back the undergrowth.

At the same time, the women and children went over every meter with a forked stick, scraping the ground to gather forgotten chestnuts, which were still found aplenty, especially behind the windrows. These last chestnuts were either sold at the Demècre market in Monthey or eaten immediately. We then went home, leaving the piled-up chestnuts there for ten to fifteen days, depending on the weather, with rain aiding in the fermentation process.

Once these fifteen days had passed, it was time for storage. Around November 1st, the work began early in the morning and had to be completed in one day, because the chestnuts couldn’t be left exposed to thieves, animals, frost, or rain. Each owner hired extra help for this, help that was easy to find because the workers were paid in chestnuts, which were always welcome.

On the appointed day, the head of the family would start the day well before dawn, equipped with a lantern and a ‘cacheu’, a narrow, heavy rake with long teeth, about 15 cm long. He would first remove the stones and then the now-dried branches, using them to make a fire. This helped keep the workers warm and provided light since it was still dark. He would then remove the husks, which had turned brown due to fermentation, and, in small quantities, would strike them with the back of the cacheu to release the chestnuts from the husks. Then, using the rake’s teeth, he would remove the empty husks to feed the fire, which burned all day.

The women would arrive at daylight, carrying jute sacks for the chestnuts. They knelt by the pile and sorted the chestnuts.  The work wasn’t always pleasant; it was often bitterly cold and sometimes rainy, and the women would blow on their hands to keep them warm, but thankfully there was the fire.

Picnics were eaten on-site; there were no thermoses, but a bottle of coffee wrapped in a newspaper. A nail was placed in the bottle to prevent it from popping when filled. Sometimes, a cake made from corn flour accompanied the meal.

The chestnuts were sorted; the large ones were for storage or sale, while the small ones, known as ‘bélosses’, were partially given to the pigs, and the rest were dried in the attic, if they could be kept safe from the mice. The chestnuts for storage were kept in wooden barrels covered with a plank.

By evening, everything was done. We returned tired, with our baskets full, but content with the work we had done.

Since there were many large families in the valley, we sometimes sold whole sacks. Many owners had regular customers and sold to the same people year after year. Families consumed a lot of chestnut—in the evening for dinner, in the morning for breakfast, and sometimes with cold leftovers for lunch.

The floury and nourishing chestnut fulfilled its dietary role well; they were an important food for families in winter. Chestnuts were always cooked in salted water, as roasted chestnuts were not known.”

A glimpse of life in Choëx
Since the arrival of freezers, this practice no longer occurs.