Chestnut days

To begin…..

a patè of wild mushrooms and chestnuts

After, Chestnut and borlotti bean soup

As I mentioned on Sunday, we have been given a large quantity of very beautiful, deep brown, smooth and glossy sweet chestnuts. I adore chestnuts so I was quite delighted and jumped around. Delight dissolved into mild panic at the sense of responsibility for such a nice gift (I still can’t talk about the last gift, the quinces, I am still ashamed) and the prospect of all the peeling. But that too dissolved and delight returned as we roasted and then gobbled the first chestnuts and I began making chestnut shaped plans.

Growing up in England we had chestnuts, but only very occasionally and almost exclusively at Christmas. Probably in the stuffing, almost certainly roasted in the embers of the fire and maybe, if we were lucky, my Dad would buy my Mum a box of marrons glacès to be offered around. But that was it, our chestnut quota until the following year.  I’m not sure why, we all liked them and my Mum was a thoughtful, seasonal cook and occasional forager. It’s not as if they were an exotic delicacy, we could buy the larger european ones or hunt down the smaller English ones throughout the autumn. Whats more there was a sweet chestnut tree – not to be confused with the horse-chestnut tree which provided us with conkers to be hurled at each other –  at the bottom of our road and Rothamstead park had several vast, old, gnarled trees which shed their prickly husks amongst serrated leaves from October. We just didn’t.

I only really started to cook and experiment with chestnuts when I came to Italy. Italians love and prize chesnuts – afterall they were a staple food here for thousands of years, they deserve to acknowledged – and they do such nice things with them that it becomes quite impossible to ignore, forget or neglect them especially in Autumn, the chestnut coloured months right up until Christmas.

So, the chestnut shaped plans…..

Well, I found 56 recipes I would like to make, most of them Italian or French and many from a lovely small but perfectly formed book by Ria Loohuizen about the history, culture and cooking of chestnuts called, quite appropriately, On chestnuts the trees and their seeds. My mum gave it to me for my birthday 3 years ago, 21 september 2006, I know because she always dates the inside cover.

I finally narrowed it down to 8 recipes – which reads like a rather grand dinner to be held in Umbria sometime in October (I know just the place) – 3 of which I have made before, a patè, a soup, a main course, 2 fine accompaniments involving bacon, a dessert, a cake and the hush……marrons glacè…… I would of course start at the beginning, the patè.

I am not actually suggesting this as a complete meal unless of course you want to see if a chestnut overdose is possible. I imagine each course could be a meal in itself with appropriate bits and frills. Having said that we did go for a chestnut double yesterday and have the first two chestnuts courses for lunch, the terrine, with plenty of nice bread and some pickled gherkins and the soup with a blob of creme fraiche.

But before we go any further….

Preparing the chestnuts

In Italy there are two types of chestnuts one is the small castagna commune (common chestnut) which is small and flat nut because each prickly burr contains 2 or 3 smaller nuts. The other is the (cultivated) larger, plumper marrone which is a single nut in a single prickly burr. The marrone has sweeter, jucier flesh and more of it. I like both.

When buying or collecting sweet chestnuts, look for the nice, hard, unwrinkled, shiny ones, which aren’t dented or cracked. They should have a certain weight, if they are light or soft or rattle they are old and have been kept too long. They will be dry and mean tasting.

The secret to cooking fresh chestnuts is cutting the shells properly so the shell and the tough astringent skin underneath comes away easily. Wash the nuts and then soak them in warm water for 20 minutes so the shells are easier to slash. Using a small sharp knife or a special chestnut knife make a horizontal cut across the curved side of the nut leaving the flat side uncut.

Now, I sometimes boil and I sometimes roast chestnuts before peeling them, it all depends on the recipe. For the following patè and soup I think roasting is best. So, put the slashed nuts (a little more than the required weight to account for the shells) on a baking tray and roast at 200°/400f for 25 minutes. Once they are quite tender and the skin hard and crisp, take the chestnuts out of the oven and wrap them tightly in a tea towel so the chestnuts steam a little and the shells come loose. You can also crush the chestnuts slightly while they are still wrapped so the shells break. After 10 minutes unwrap and peel the chestnuts.

So the patè

Patè of chestnuts and wild mushrooms

Adpated from Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

I’ve made this before and I love it. I want to ramble on about the thick, rich texture of chestnuts and how they are hearty and sweet yet deeply savory at the same time, how well they go with mushrooms, that this feels like food from another time, that I wish I could write poems about chestnuts………. To top it all I used a fresh porcini which was very extravagant but very very tasty.

You can use any kind of mushrooms for this recipe including ordinary cultivated ones but in general the wilder the better. As I have already said, serve at room temperature with pickled gherkins, onions, lots of nice toasted bread and a bottle of rough and ready Chianti. Spread thickly.

  • 100g mushrooms
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 1 small red onion finely diced
  • 250g chestnuts cooked and peeled
  • 25g good butter
  • freshly grated nutmeg
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 or 6 juniper berries (optional)

Clean the mushrooms by wiping them with a damp cloth; never rinse mushrooms or they become soggy. Chop the mushrooms finely.

Warm the oil in a frying pan over a medium heat and saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the mushrooms to the frying pan and let them fry gently for about 15 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Puree the chestnuts with a food processor, hand blender, mouli-legumes or mash them with the back of a fork,add a tablespoon of warm water if they seem too dry.

Add the soft butter and chestnut purèe to the onion and mushrooms in the frying pan, add a grating of nutmeg and stir all the ingredients with a wooden spoon until they are well incorporated.

Pack the mixture into an earthenware terrine or small bowl and decorate the top with juniper berries.

Leave the mixture to set in the fridge for at least 4 hours. Serve at room temperature.

Now the the soup

Chestnut and borlotti bean soup

Adpated from Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

serves 4 very well

I once ate a wonderful bean and chestnut soup in Umbria. I tried to ask what type of beans they had used but my wonky italian and English accent confused   the waitress who scuttled away whispering ‘fagioli fagioli‘ (beans beans) which didn’t really narrow it down. Anyway the colour of the soup suggested borlotti which made sense as I have always thought borlotti beans have a nutty rather chestnut like quality to them. So I experimented.

I like this soup very very much, the richness and texture of the chestnuts make a wonderfully thick, substantial, velvety soup and the colour…well it’s chestnut, which I think is quite beautiful.

It is a lovely lunch for a cold day accompanied by some toasted bread and a simple green salad for after.

  • 30g butter
  • 1 medium onion peeled and finely diced
  • I slim leek, cleaned and finely sliced
  • 1 stalk celery finely diced
  • 400g cooked borlotti or cranberry beans
  • 400g peeled chestnuts
  • 1 litre of chicken, vegetable stock or water
  • salt and pepper, nutmeg
  • crème fraiche

Melt the butter in a large soup pan and saute the onion until it is soft and translucent. Add the leek and celery and a little salt and let the vegetables gently fry on a low heat for 5 minutes.

Add the beans and the chestnuts to the pan, stir and allow everything to cook together for a few minutes.

Add the stock or water and bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let the soup simmer for 25 minutes.

Pass the soup through the mouli-legumes, blast with a hand blender or purèe with the food processor. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and a grating of nutmeg. Stir.

Serve the soup very warm but not really hot in warm bowls with a blob of crème fraiche.

Practical things

Fresh chestnuts can be kept for days in a cool place or for weeks in the fridge, We can also learn from animals who keep them under a layer of leaves and go leaf collecting or simply lay our chestnuts in box and cover them with a layer of sand. Chestnuts freeze very well once you have peeled them.

The last thing.

The oldest chestnut tree, one of the oldest trees in the world, grows on the Island of Sicily on the eastern slope of the volcano Etna, and is known locally as Il castagno dei 100 cavalli, ‘the tree of 100 horses’. The legend has it that during a thunder-storm the queen of Aragon found shelter for herself and the 100 horsemen who accompanied her on a visit to mount Etna. This magnificent tree, which is estimated to be between 2000 and 4000 years old has been described since the 16th century in the diaries of many travellers, and sketched or painted by artists. When the Scottish traveller Patrick Brydone, who was initially doubtful it was one tree, measured its girth in 1770, he found it to be 62 meters.

Ria Loohuizen ‘On Chestnuts’

15 Comments

Filed under Beans and pulses, chestnuts, food, patè and terrines, recipes, soup

15 responses to “Chestnut days

  1. Oh, Rachel, this is a wonderful post. I must admit that I have been chestnut-deprived so far in this lifetime—that needs correcting.
    Patè looks divine.
    I also have borlotti beans in the cupboard.
    Now, to find chestnuts…

  2. Sunday here and there, upon arrival, the water is salted, the pasta is dropped. Roberto’s mother bends down to the broiler to flip the already roasting chestnuts layered on a piece of foil. No tongues, just her seasoned fingers flip them one by one. As the pasta is being drained and dressed with sauce she bundles the nicely roasted chestnuts into a tea towel of white with blue stripes, embroidered with the word ‘Portofino’ in the lower right corner. She crunches them around a bit and sets them aside, usually on the covered radiator, where they’ll sit until the last bit of salad and meat have disappeared from our plates. The bundle of chestnuts is then brought to the table and eagerly we open and commence with eating.

  3. arugulove

    I have always wanted to cook with chestnuts but I was never sure what to do with them. That mushroom spread looks really lovely and I can see the two going well together. Thanks for the idea!

  4. bonjourkitty

    Rach,
    would it be a bad idea to paint my room the colour of your soup?
    It all looks and sounds so good. Am candying some here in London but worried now as my supermarket ones were decidedly un shiny.
    Will there be a cake recipe coming up for our Chritmas pud chez Trav please?
    Kit x

    • rachel

      I think it would be a very good colour for a bedroom.
      Oh good we can candy together, I have been peeling all bloody afternoon.
      Yes, cake is coming.
      x.

  5. Both the soup and pate look wonderful! I’ve never attempted cooking with chestnuts. I’m not even sure I’ve ever eaten one.

    I still need to make my biscotti. Where does the time go? Sigh…

    We are planning to be in Sicilia next year. I’d love to see the Il castagno dei 100 cavalli. I just might hunt it down. Once inspired, it’s tough to stop me. I remember my hunt for the castle featured in Enchanted April. I thought I’d never find it, and then…there it was!

    My mother dates all of her book gifts to me too, most of them food related.

    • rachel

      I didn’t know about such a tree either until I read it the other day…we both need to seek it out.
      Sicilia, beautiful, wild and difficult and yet peaceful and just extraordinary.

  6. theordinarycook

    The pate looks absolutely delicious, I will definitely be making this in the next few weeks, however I am afraid to say I will be wimping out and using the vacuum packed ready roasted variety!

  7. Pingback: Chestnut diary « rachel eats

  8. Really enjoy looking through all your posts…
    I live near ‘Il castagno dei 100 cavalli’, so let me know when you make it down for a visit in Sicilia!

    http://siciliansimplicity.blogspot.com/search?q=chestnut

  9. Pingback: Recipes to Try | Live and Learn

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