Historically, the chestnut is an egalitarian nut. In the mountainous regions bordering the Mediterranean, where cereals would not grow, wild chestnuts (or châtaignes) sustained the rural peasantry for centuries. From Portugal to Turkey chestnuts were roasted, boiled, baked or ground into a flour to create cakes and bread. So much so, the French call the chestnut tree l’arbre à pain (the bread tree).
And yet, chestnuts also found a place at the most opulent banquets and feasts. The difference being it was their larger, cultivated cousins, known as marrons, gracing the platters of the aristocracy.
Revered for their delicate, sweet, nutty flavour, chestnuts are incredibly versatile. They make an excellent soup, add texture to stuffings, are great in braises and stir-fries. Once roasted their starchy texture is reminiscent of a baked potato. The aroma of chestnuts roasting over charcoal braziers on the streets of Paris and Rome is the perfume of autumn.
Chestnuts also play an important role in the pastry kitchen. Perhaps the best-known culinary incantation is the marron glacé, a French specialty in which they are candied in sugar syrup and then glazed. Crème de marrons, a purée created from the marrons that are broken throughout this intricate process, can be found in specialty stores and quality delicatessens. This can be used to create the classic Mont Blanc, in which the puree is topped with whipped cream, in order to represent the snow-capped mountain for which it is named. At home, spread crème de marrons over toast or on a little over puff pastry before enveloping your apples for an indulgent tarte tatin.
Chestnut flour, known as farina dolce in Italian for its sweet overtones, can be used as a delicious alternative to regular flour in cakes. In northern Italy you will see this used to create castagnaccio, where the flour is combined with olive oil, pinenuts, raisons and occasionally orange peel or rosemary, and served as a celebration of autumn.
Chestnuts may be the forgotten seasonal delicacy. They shouldn’t be. Just like fruit, a nut will deteriorate once it is removed from the tree, rapidly losing flavour and texture. Don’t let your chestnut be an old one.
apple, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, chicken, cinnamon, chocolate, cream, game, honey, mushroom, nutmeg, onion, orange, pork, vanilla,
Select and store:
Chestnuts are harvested in autumn and are available fresh for the next couple of months only.
Look for chestnuts that have glossy, undamaged shells and feel heavy in your hand, they shouldn’t rattle when you shake them. If you have your own chestnut tree collect the nuts as they fall. You will need to dry them in the sun for a day, until there is no moisture visible on the skin. Store chestnuts in an airtight container in your fridge.
Seek out chestnut flour from health food shops. You will want to be sure it is relatively fresh, so opt for a place with a good turn over.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with the chestnut is removing the external casing and internal skin (pellicle). Using a sharp Stanley knife, score an X on the flat side of the chestnut. This will stop the nut exploding and give you something to grip onto when removing the husk. Simmer chestnuts for 15 minutes and then remove nuts one at a time as you peel them (you will not be able to remove the inner skin if the nut is cold). Alternatively you can roast (at 180C) or barbecue the scored chestnuts for 20 minutes. Wrap them in a tea towel for 5 minutes before peeling, keeping the excess nuts warm as you go.
1kg of chestnuts will yield 500 – 600g of shelled chestnuts.
Cooking with chestnuts:
Chestnut and honey madeleines:
Melt 100g of butter and set aside to cool to room temperature. Whisk together 3 eggs, ½ a cup of caster sugar and 1 tablespoon of honey until you can form a figure 8 over the mixture (ribbon stage). It will be white and fluffy. Gently fold in 1 cup of sifted chestnut flour and 1 teaspoon of baking powder. Add the butter and mix gently. Cover and refrigerate for a couple of hours before pouring into the madeleine tray (only filling ¾ of the way) and bake at 180C for 5 minutes before reducing to 160C for a further 5 minutes. Allow madeleines to cool on a wire rack.
Chestnut stuffed mushrooms:
Remove the stalk from 6 large mushrooms, to create room for the stuffing. Nestle the mushrooms in a tray, adding a little butter, a sprinkle of thyme leaves and a drizzle of Madeira and roast in a moderate over for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, gently fry some finely diced onion. Pop a couple of good-quality pork sausages from their skins and add to the onion along with a 200g of chopped chestnuts (you could use tinned chestnuts here), some more thyme or rosemary, and sauté until everything is cooked through. Remove mushrooms from the oven, pile the stuffing up on each one and place back in the oven for another half an hour, or until it is nice and golden