VILLEFRANCHE DU PERIGORD – FETE DE LA CHATAIGNE 15 & 16 October 2016
Villefranche du Périgord is a Bastide village founded in 1261 by Alphonse de Poitiers, the brother of Louis IX. This village lies in the ‘Land of the Chestnut Tree’ in the south easterly region of the Dordogne, bordered by the Lot and the Lot-et-Garonne.
The Chestnut Fair in Villefranche de Perigord is a local ‘institution’ which takes place every 3rd weekend in October. It’s timed to coincide with the end of the chestnut harvest and thereby the peak ‘nut’ sales period. The Fair makes the very best of use of the ancient covered market place which dominates the town square.
The number of local chestnut producers has decreased now to about 250. The current production region covers parts of the Haute Vienne, Corrèze, Lot, Dordogne, Lot et Garonne and the Tarn. Chestnut trees prefer acidic, stony ground because whilst the trees require water they also need effective drainage. Harvesting takes place from the beginning of September until the start of November each year. After the harvest is gathered, the crop is sorted and weighed and then either prepared (peeled or cooked) or kept in cold rooms to be prepared and sold later.
On the Friday night before the Fair there’s a ‘welcome gathering’ with the telling of French tales, chestnuts are roasted and ‘bourru’ wine is served. Then on the Saturday morning the market starts, offering a great selection of local products; either gastronomic treats or simple daily produce. Many people attend the market to buy some of the lovely ‘cêpes’ that are often laid out on stalls. Most importantly you’ll be able to witness the famous chestnut judging competition where the largest and most perfect specimens are crowned.
In the afternoon there are various activities including guided walks to learn about local plant-life. In Le Halle there’s a competition to see who is the best able to handle the traditional tongs used to collect the nuts from the ground. Then later, in the evening, there’s a meal which offers some speciality chestnut dishes and you can take part in traditional dancing with the folk group ‘Les Croquants d’Escornabïou’.
On Sunday morning there’s a ritual gathering of the ‘brotherhood’ of la Confrérie de la Châtaigne de Villefranche du Périgord where the brothers wear very specific costumes. You can also watch the creation of a huge omelette; prepared with 35 kgs of Cêpes and 1200 eggs and which can feed up to 400 hungry people. After that, how about watching a chestnut-spitting competition? This is a very serious competition with strict rules. The competition is open to anyone, of any age. This year there’s an 11m record to be beaten. All-in-all it’s possible, in a short weekend, to get a real flavour of this ancient traditional fair and any of the local traditions. Don’t forget to gather a few chestnut products to take home. Things such as chestnut crème, confiture, soup, beer, biscuits, cakes, flour, aperitifs and of course the nuts themselves – either just as they were picked or in jars, toasted or peeled ready for cooking. Three of the main producers and preparers of chestnut products in the region are Domaine de Rapatel, Les Gourmandises de Camille and La Cabane de Marou, watch-out for their products around the town!
Away from all the nuts you’ll also find the town a great place to explore, with its typical Dordogne style houses, calmness and a great sense of time-through-the-ages. You could enjoy a drink at Le Café du Commerce, opposite La Halle or in La Rencontre des Saveurs, in Rue Notre Dame.
If you find yourself feeling peckish you could pop into Le Goûter de Charlotte and taste their home-made savoury pies, mixed salads or delicious desserts and where you can be sure of a whole-heartedly welcome. Then for the very hungry there’s le Restaurant La Bastide or La Petite Auberge (just a little away from the main town) both of which offer typical regional menus.
There are a number of shops housing local artists, local products, bric-a-brac and a lovely second hand book shop. To gather more information on the area you can visit the Museum of Traditional Perigord , or call in at the friendly Tourist Office and even visit their ‘La Maison de la Châtaigne’ an interactive space that teaches even more about the favourite local product – the Chestnut.
As well as the Chestnut Fair there are other food related treats during the year. For instance, this year, on the 23rd October there’s a Chocolate Festival. Then there are the now-famous mushroom markets, which take place every day during the mushroom growing season. This town was not awarded the title Site Remarquable du Gout for no reason – it’s packed with tasty offerings!
Research by Valérie Rousseau