I just came back from a long spell wwoofing in Italy and southern France, and ended up spending quite a lot of time in places that had old chestnut orchards going back to the time when the peasant cultures in the uplands used the fruits as their staple food crop (the hill country not being suitable for grain cultivation). They ate them fresh, roasted, boiled, or made them into flour by drying them en masse in specialised buildings, then thrashing the skins off with sticks and grinding the nutmeat in mills. When harvests were good the best nuts would be taken to sell in lowland markets. The tree became known as ‘L’arbre à pain’ (literally ‘bread tree’) because of this massive contribution to the diets of the peasantry across France, Italy, Corsica and elsewhere. It also provided an invaluable back-up for when wheat harvests failed and thereby put the brakes on the famines that routinely struck European countries during the middle ages. Only a combination of disease, war, rural flight, the tanning industry and greater focus on silk (from the worms on mulberry trees, called ‘l’arbre d’or’ - ‘gold tree’) and subsequent dependence on the cash economy put an end to the cultures in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Well, the subsistence village economies are gone, but individual farmers are still making use of the established orchards, keeping the trees and grounds maintained and selling the nuts at markets or higher end products in shops selling local/organic produce to middle-upper class consumers. But to my mind the possibilities are still there for rebuilding an indigenous subsistence culture - as long as the trees are kept alive.
Anyway, that’s a brief summary of what I learned. If you’ve got time to spare you can wade into the full report which I just posted here: