Mont blanc is something of a showcase for chestnut paste, and that’s no accident. For millennia chestnuts have been synonymous with the Alps, especially the alps of Northern Italy, where chestnuts were a staple starch in the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire.
The chestnut trees that chestnut eaters know best originated in southwestern Turkey, where they were cultivated as far back as 2000 B.C.. They were “discovered” by Westerners in the first few centuries B.C., so it’s said by Alexander the Great during his eastern campaigns. The chestnut fruit appealed strongly to a military man like Alexander, packed as it is with vitamins and starch. Ounce-for-ounce chestnuts have twice as many calories as potatoes. They last forever and eminently portable.
Something of a miracle crop they are, which is why the Greeks, and later the Romans, planted them wherever the went. They made great supplements to regular supply lines and grew abundantly where cereal crops wouldn’t, notably up high where only pines and evergreens thrive.
Given their many virtues it’s not hard to see why they were so useful to the Italian peoples (and Europeans generally) in the centuries that followed the Roman fall. Without that giant market for goods — from foods to tools to textiles, medicines and building materials — the economies of entire regions around Rome collapsed. No money or trade meant people had to go back to living off the land. Up in the mountains where precious little grows, residents of remote villages had little to eat but livestock and chestnuts. And they didn’t have livestock must of the time. So they lived solely from chestnuts — just like the Irish lived solely from potatoes — for decades, even centuries.
Good thing they’re tasty. Chestnut starch can be used in either sweet or savory dishes. Chestnut flour can even be made into bread (albeit of a non-rising kind since chestnuts have no gluten). Chestnut paste is somewhat of a later innovation, but it’s delicious all by itself, and makes a powerful symbol when used atop a dessert meant to evoke a mountain peak.