Along shopping boulevards in Paris, around tourist spots, in green parks and outside metro stations, street vendors sell roasted chestnuts in the winter months. Dressed in beanies and woollen scarves, the vendors run their unorthodox, makeshift roasting businesses. A shopping trolley is the kitchen, a large round metal disc punctured with holes is the improvised hotplate where the chestnuts smoke and cook and brown. Inside the trolley, a can of barbeque bricks provides the heat, and the vendor has his headphones in his ears in case he hears word of the police arriving. Police are a threat to the industry indeed; the shopping trolley chestnut roasters, popular as they may be, are illegal stands and not licensed to sell food.
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Marrons Chauds – Roasted Chestnuts
Maybe you’ve seen them in shopping areas such as LaFayette or in the Jardin de Tuileries, waving smoke away from a metal dish packed with big brown spheres, fire roaring below. For those not familiar with these snacks, you might be wondering – What exactly are they selling? Known locally as marrons chauds, or chataignes, the chestnuts are large nuts that turn soft when cooked, barbequed in the open air, shells still on. The smoky, nutty, burned-wood smell is incredibly alluring, and many people are tempted by this delicious hot treat on a cold winter’s night. Many people look past the shonky appearance of the kitchen-on-wheels, and love to eat some while doing shopping. For around 3-5 Euros, you’ll be served a cone of several piping hot chestnuts steaming in the cold air, ready to be peeled and enjoyed as a snack on the go.
Are Parisian Roasted Chestnuts Safe To Eat?
The shopping trolley setup is essentially a barbeque on wheels, with nothing but barbeque bricks and chestnuts going into the recipe. The marrons chauds are very popular, eaten by many locals and tourists alike, and are probably perfectly safe. But if you prefer to err on the side of caution, it’s worth remembering that these setups are not authorised merchants.
Life As A Chestnut Roaster
Often, these vendors are immigrants to France who lack the proper paperwork. South Asian vendors are commonplace in the world of Parisian roasted chestnuts. Armed with the French language, as well as the word for ‘chestnut’ in many more languages, tourists are the main target. English is usually fine to order a cone. Chestnut prices depend on the customer; a vendor usually lowers the price when hustling passersby, and raises the price when somebody approaches the cart. Their income is inconsistent, and varies from pocket change on a rainy night to several hundred Euros on a busy shopping event.
Chestnut roasters often work together with their friends, family or business partners, taking turns to buy the supplies, sell water bottles, the chestnuts, and keep an eye open for the authorities. Together with other vendors, such as those hawking selfie sticks and Eiffel Tower statues, they watch each other’s backs. Obtaining the raw chestnuts is something of a backdoor deal, with Neonmag reporting on one vendor who meets a wholesaler at their van for a discreet purchase. Ten kilos of nuts imported from Portugal is sold for around 40 Euros.
Why the secrecy? Selling marrons chauds on the street is illegal, and the earpieces in the ears of the sellers keeps news about the police’s whereabouts current. Sometimes the vendors close shop in an instant and roll their trolleys away and down an alley or a hidden bushy area of a park. Other times they’re caught, but more often they’re ignored, with police often more busy with more pressing concerns.
Roasted chestnuts on the streets of Paris are one of the city’s most beloved street foods, even though they’re not licensed. With their rickety, makeshift kitchens, one can’t be blamed for being suspicious about the cleanliness and safety of these food products. But for those who do enjoy hot chataignes, the smell of barbequed snacks on a cold winter’s night is a very welcome treat indeed.