I came late to chestnuts. I have no idea why, but they scarcely figured in the first few decades of my life. I think I thought that they were mythical, or that they’d gone extinct shortly after Charles Dickens died, or that only the very rich and the very French could have them – as marron glacé. Neither do I know when I had my first – they were probably roasted, at Christmas, maybe in Worcester at a Victorian Christmas Fair, making Friar Street look even more ye olde world than ever. That they were immemorable suggests that they weren’t very good, probably badly cooked, maybe a bugger to peel. Did their starchiness come across as mealy blandness? I had a much sweeter tooth back then, perhaps their ambivalence in the sweet/savoury stakes put me off?
On and off, I perservered. Again it was the French that taught me how to appreciate them. The urge to buy luxurious tins of chestnut puree necessitated cake baking, this led on to the vacuum packed precooked ones that go into a brilliant mushroom and chestnut pie. And then there’s soup. The thought of chestnut soup had never even crossed my mind until a chance mention by a stranger, but it’s a thing of utter simplistic joy. A simple soffritto, some bacon, (if you like), chestnuts and the best stock you can muster. It has no soup equal for combating the northern European winter dread. Frugal, yet delicious. Elizabeth David gives a simple recipe in Italian cooking
Now, chestnuts are an essential. They are so intrinsically linked to the darkest months of the year though, that I find it hard to imagine cooking with them at any other time. Part of their pleasure comes from their all too brief availability as the real thing. Another part of the pleasure comes from the work they demand, the scoring, the cooking, the peeling. They are an investment. Of course, you can have the precooked and packaged ones in the cupboard, for the days when time is too short to pause and settle to the peeling. But if you have the time, and a friend to share it with, then the ritual of preparation can be a wonderful, simple past time.
In Europe, chestnuts are held in higher esteem I think than in the UK, I’ve heard that our chestnuts are smaller and the trees less productive. They are mostly confined to a few weeks running up to Christmas, and then they vanish. They do not seem to have a defined place within British cooking, or if they did, it has been lost. But go to France, to Switzerland, to Italy and the chestnut is understood and revered for its languid bounty – a crop that feeds in times of hardship and plenty, both humble and luxurious. Soups with beans (Roman style), dried and ground to make flour (and then pasta), preserved in sugar as a treat, pureed and piled up into a mountainous pudding.
And then there’s the brandy. There’s always something liquering away in the larder here – sloes are the default, and quinces. Usually in gin. There have been experiments with apricots in brandy (ended up tasting like cough medicine), Bergamots in gin (lemon drain cleaner on its own, but a tiny splash in a normal G&T is transformative) and once with a rumtopff (a waste of good rum, but the fruit makes an amazing clafoutis). Nuts, however, are a new thing. This summer, I’m planning on making Nocello, with green walnuts. I had planned to do it last year, but we were in Sicily during their fleetingly brief season. So until then, it’s chestnuts in brandy.
Score your chestnuts along the flatter side and roast them for 15-20 minutes in the oven (if you’re really keen, you can buy a viciously sharp curved little chestnut knife especially for the scoring)
Wrap them in a damp tea towel for ten minutes and then peel them
Pack a jar with the cooked and peeled chestnuts
Cover with brandy
Add a little sugar.
Seal, shake and leave for a month.
Invite your nearest and dearest around, light the fire and then eat the chestnuts, sip the brandy.