Saturday, October 18, 2008

'Fresh fire coal chestnut falls...'


October, and the chestnuts are on the ground. With more time and less money on my hands, like the reduced and self-sacrificing country family in Balzac's 'Père Goriot', who are said to have more chestnut soup than meat upon their table, it's time to avail myself of these most satisfying but time-consuming examples of food for free.

Sweet chestnut trees, chataigniers, are, with oaks, perhaps the most abundant trees here, which is one of the most noticeable differences between this landscape and that of Britain, where they are comparitively infrequent. Horse chestnuts, marronniers, by contrast, are relatively uncommon, even in town plantings, and the game of conkers is unknown, except to those familiar with or instructed in the eccentricities of British culture. The rationale behind this preference is perhaps a typically French one: why cultivate an inedible version of something for its beauty when there's one that yields something you can eat?


They are generally serviceable trees, as well as handsome; they grow fast, live long, and coppice well. The nuts are an optional bonus now, but in past centuries many a French rural dweller was saved from death by famine by eating chestnuts. The timber is good, and has been much used for building. It is said that spiders dislike it and won't make webs on chestnut wood, so it was practical for chateaux and other high-ceilinged buildings where dusting off cobwebs might pose a problem. It's reasonable wood for burning, if a little smoky.

The nuts here are variable; in a good year they are large and plentiful and worthwhile. This year they are rather small, after last year's atrocious summer they were, for the first time in living memory I think, non-existent, the previous year they were somwhat bug-ridden, I don't know why. But then we are rather too north-westerly, the climate too cool and damp. Further south grow the varieties which yield beautiful, plump, sweet nuts, easy to shell and peel, often two to a husk, the kind favoured for marrons glacés.


So why are they marrons glacés, when they are habitually called chataignes, and a marron is a conker? Good question, and one for which, like why you can't find non-cultured, non-UHT, fresh cream as opposed to crème fraiche, I have never received a satisfactory explanation. It simply elicits the the non-plussed response which is not really especially a Gallic shrug but more perhaps the reaction of people everywhere when their own linguistic or cultural inconsistencies and unanswerables are raised.

(The Gallic shrug also is something for which there is no real translation, as far as I know, and of which the French seem unaware as a national habit. My attempts to explain or convey what is meant by the term have resorted to imitation, and resulted in a puzzled and slightly hurt response, along the lines of "Do we do that? Oh dear...". I regretted trying, as if I had unkindly mocked a person for a tic or mannerism, and made them feel unhappy and self-conscious, criticised.)

Howsoever, the coda is always that of course that one should never eat a marron. Unless it is glacé, when it isn't really a marron. I have never understood how anyone above the age of four could possibly be so stupid as to make the mistake of eating a conker, but in case anyone is googling this to find 'difference between horse and sweet chestnut', I've kindly gone through my old drives and folders to find a picture of a horse chestnut, below,

and one of its leaves, below (which was a pretty one I used for a 'Handbook for Explorers' illustration, I am eternally proud to boast).


As you can see, they are very different, especially the husks, but somehow just the whole feel, weight, grain of them. I don't think they're even related.


Picking up chestnuts is in truth rather like picking up seashells on the beach; I always vow I won't get sidetracked into doing it, but then find I can't help myself. The spiny husks are called bogues (which according to Hannah Green in Little Saint,is a word of Breton or pre-Latin Gallic origin), and can be quite painful on and in fingers and paws. So it's advisable to wear gloves to collect them. I never do, because, as I say, I never mean to go collecting them. Sturdy shoes are a good idea for the preliminary shelling, as kicking them out of grass and leaf litter and splitting them open with a foot each side of the husk is an irresistible pleasure. Having said that, husking chestnuts in sandals is one of the surprising, inconsistent delights of an Indian summer.


So, having gathered your chestnuts, what to do with them? As I said, they are very time consuming. Generally I find it's better to gather them in small and manageable quantities, else they can defeat you. Then you can always just grill, peel and eat them hot as a treat on their own. Sadly, the best moment for chestnuts is usually before we light our first fires, but there are appealing special pans, like heavy, plain frying pans with holes in the bottom, specially conceived for the grilling of chestnuts, which you could use on the gas. I don't own one, but always mean to treat myself.



If you want to use them for cooking, then you have to get peeling. Recipes will say 'x amount of prepared chestnuts', but in this preparation lies the rub. The real problem is the inner skin, between the nut and the shell. I've tried many different ways, none of them is quick and easy, to remove it. I would always remove the outer shell first. Some recipes say boil them in the shells, but these are dirty and bitter, and the nuts will not be the better for it. Then I tend to plunge them a few at a time into boiling water, and pick off the membranous inner skin with a small pointed knife, rather like skinning tomatoes, but more fiddly. Boiling them too long, as with roasting them, makes them crumbly and the job difficult. Handling them hot is tricky, but leave them to cool and the skins contract back and don't come away. It's a delicate operation.

Then you can simmer them skinned, in stock if it's for a savoury dish, afterward. Recipes will often call for them as purée, obtained by passing them through a sieve. I think perhaps even my life might just be a bit too short for that, but a food processor will do it, and I might yet try the potato ricer, which for some unaccountable reason is one of my very favourite pieces of kitchen equipment. The purée soaks up a huge amount of liquid - water, milk or stock - to make it workable.


And what can you cook with them? They are very versatile, lend themselves to sweet and savoury alike. They are indeed good in soup, usually smooth ones, where they blend very well with all kinds of other autumnal things: potato of course, carrot, apple, parsnip (though the parsnip taste can overwhelm the more delicate chestnut flavour), and a particular favourite, which you can even buy in cartons here, is with pumpkin, where they smooth out and give substance, offsetting the somewhat swedey, thin, vegetable-ness of the pumpkin, which I find otherwise needs rather a lot of cream, butter, spice etc to give it interest. They're good in stuffings, of course, and with cranberries, though my attempts to make a nut-roast type loaf have never been very successful, it always comes out rather stodgy and cloying. Typically, they go with Brussels sprouts, especially with the addition of garlic and toasted breadcrumbs, and with red cabbage and apple and sour cream. As to sweet dishes, the most delectable,rich and utterly sinful chocolate dessert ever comes from Mireille Johnston's Complete French Cookery course, and consists of equal parts chestnut puree, sugar, butter and dark chocolate, melted together in a bain-marie and chilled overnight. (Only when researching the above link did I learn that Mireille died suddenly in 2000, aged just 65; the link is to an obituary, on John Whiting's website, which I'd also recommend. I feel quite distressed; her books and television were among the factors instrumental in bringing us to France, and reading the piece I was reminded of what a richly cultivated, brilliant person she was. I can still dream myself off to another place just browsing in her books. It is a little tempting to wonder if the amount of butter, cream, cheese, chocolate and duck fat in her cooking might have left her predisposed to sudden death, but I prefer not to. She always looked wonderful on it...). There is a slightly healthier version in Mary Norwak's fantastically originally named 'The Good Cook', which is a pound of chestnut puree, 8 oz of chocolate, 4 oz of sugar and 6 oz of butter, with a dash of brandy. But Mary lacks Mireille's glamour.

Though they are good sources of carbohydrate and some protein, the thrifty food-for-free appeal is largely illusory, especially if you end up combining them with butter, dark chocolate, brandy and cream. But collecting them is fun, and they are jewel-bright and beautiful. If you don't fancy it, or haven't got a few hours to spare to prepare them, or if you can't find any in a country lane, or greengrocer, near you, go and buy a jar or a packet of vacuum-packed ones, or a tin of purée. They're delicious anyway.

28 comments:

Rosie said...

chestnuts are delightful, and we have a few on the edge of the nearby forest. the idea of combining them with chocolate is hard to beat... I'm off to look for some unhealthy puddings on your links...

Plutarch said...

An enjoyable an inspiring essay. Alas sweet chestnut round here rarely swell like yours in Britanny, And delectable photographs! I like the way that fruit,nuts leaves etc sometimes become almost animate when framed and examined closely through a lense.

marja-leena said...

We only have horse chestnuts here, sadly. I've never seen or eaten sweet chestnuts, and after this delightful post and fabulous photos, I feel I'm missing out on one of life's pleasures. Thanks, Lucy, for sharing this.

Julia said...

Fabulous post, I've often wondered about the differences between horse and edible (we have plenty of horse chestnuts around us, but only the canned version of sweet chestnuts, brought home every summer from the SuperU).

My favorite chestnut recipe is "gateau aux marrons d'Ardeche". So yummy.

julie said...

I've never eaten real chestnuts, but I do have fond memories of waiting after school under a chestnut tree with my siblings, shelling and gathering conkers. It's like a treasure hunt, delicately opening spiny cases hoping to find a nice solid nut on the inside.

Lovely photos, as always Lucy.

Barrett Bonden said...

Paris in autumn/winter and the Proustian smell of roasting chestnuts in the streets. Often it's more a case of "burning chestnuts" yet it never seems to matter. Served in fragile brown paper bags which evoke post-war austerity Britain.

I appreciated your caveat about food-for-free given that one of the potential additions is brandy. I take it we can't expect a future essay on the ultimate French food-for-free - truffles? Reckon you're about 300 km too far north.

Lesley said...

We once had a a stash of fresh chestnuts and forgot about them for a few days until an army of maggots marched across the floor.
I have one of those frying pans with the holes in it and the children love roasting them over the fire.

Granny J said...

Oh my, Lucy, you so aroused my curiosity about the American chestnut which was a major forest tree in the eastern states until a fungus from Asia caused a blight that nearly wiped them all out! So I spent time with The Google instead of writing glowing words about your fascinating post. I don't believe I've ever eaten a chestnut, though they are sold on some city streets back east. And now I want to try one of those chocolate/chestnut confections you described.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

This was so very interesting. And, who knew they were so beautiful in their husky state? Most enjoyable!

Sheila said...

This was so much fun to read! We do have chestnuts here, but no one I know ever thinks of eating them.

I love walking the streets in Florence and then in Zagreb (and Pula, come to think of it) and smelling that wonderful smell of "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" that we sing about here but never experience!

I also have the pan with the holes in it, but left it in Croatia.

Thanks for the memories (and wonderful photos)!

Lucy said...

Thanks good people... I'm glad GJ mentioned the chestnut blight, as I'd come across that in a Barbara Kingsolver novel, and it explains why American readers don't have chestnuts! But remember, US friends, DON'T EAT THE CONKERS!

Rosie - I don't think any of these links lead to recipes. The dessert with the choc I made once with gathered chestnuts, but frankly you're better off buying a tin of puree for that one. I'll make you one as a thank you...

Joe - one year, I think it was about 1993, as we were in Devon at the time, there was a really hot summer and a chestnut tree nearby and the nuts were fantastic, as were the tomatoes and lots of other things that year.

ML - I wonder if the Canadian ones were killed by the blight too...?

Julia - no Czech chestnuts? And your gateau, which I will look up, is 'de marrons', so perhaps the nomenclature varies regionally. A horse chestnut is a 'marron d'Inde', in fact...

Julie - delighted to know American children play with conkers too!

BB - hmm, no truffles here. I think poaching someone's truffle patch might cost you slashed tyres at the very least...

Lesley - nice!

GJ - thanks for mentioning the blight. Have there been any attempts to introduce the European chestnut to America I wonder?

Pamela - glad you enjoyed.

Sheila - I think the ones you have are perhaps not edible, then. I wonder if the song was written before the American chestnut was wiped out?

Crafty Green Poet said...

excellent post, our chestnut trees are all horse chestnuts. I have only eaten sweet chestnuts once and have to admit i didn't really like them...

leslee said...

Oh yum! I think we have all horse chestnuts here. But I've had chestnuts in dishes and they were delicious. I've seen them sold peeled in jars, very expensive. You're lucky to have them so ready at hand, and the patience to peel them!

herhimnbryn said...

Good old GMH for a title!

Ah, thankyou for this.

Here in Oz it's been unseasonably hot, humid and a thunderstorm is on the way. But, reading this has taken me back to family walks in chilly Autumnal woods collecting these glossy nuts.
I am also now craving roasted and salted chestnuts AND hazelnut
merinques with chestnut cream!

Bee said...

How lovely to be educated in all things chestnut! As many of your readers have mentioned, we have to make do with the inedible conker. (And I think that school playgrounds are trying their best to ban those.)

I didn't realize that the sweet chestnut had such a spiny case protecting its nut. No wonder Molly gets sore paws. Your marvellously clear, up-close photos show the "strangeness" of this fruit.

I had never heard of Mirielle Johnston, and can only wish that her food series from the early 90s would be broadcast again. She sounds fascinating. I can understand how you felt a bit berefit at hearing about her death. Some "strangers" do feel so personal -- inspiring us;guiding our thoughts and actions, even. I think that you are probably like that for many of us . . .

HLiza said...

Just like reading most of your other posts, this one left me in awe of how rich the nature is..I learn a lot of new things which I can't find around me. I've eaten roast chestnut bought from street stalls here but I'm not sure it's the same thing you have there..I think we don't have chestnuts in our hot climate here; they might be imported. But boy do they taste wonderful..

Sheila said...

I just read on Wikipedia that certain trees have survived the blight. The ones I've seen are in our Botanic Garden, so it's quite possible that they were brought in specifically to reintroduce American chestnuts, I suppose.

They sure look like the edible kind, as I recall--but then I never was looking at them to store it intentionally in my memory for comparison.

Now I'm curious!

meggie said...

It somehow, seems so odd to read of them, here with all the wonderful ideas for use. I was recently reading at http://tttl1998.blogspot.com/ Tanya's blog, about Chestnuts in Japan, I had not thought much about their plentiful bounty, nor how to make use of the fruit.
We loved them, roasted in coals.

Lucy said...

CGP -what a shame! But in Scotland you are too far north I think.

Leslee - Eastern Seaboarders seem to know them better. Worth treating yourself to a jar?

HHB - yes, I've been storing that title! Things with chestnut cream in often have the culinary suffix 'Mont Blanc' I gather. Your meringues sound delicious...

Bee - what a nice thing to say! But I don't feel like a stranger. With this medium we are all much more accessible to one another than with traditional forms of writing and publishing. The spines are quite unpleasant really, the sting when you get pricked seems to hang around sometimes.

Hliza - interesting. I think the Chinese know and enjoy chestnuts, and see Meggies comment below, that they are popular in Japan. The ones we used to buy in England came from Spain usually. They aren't quite as fascinating as the durian fruit you descrbed though!

Sheila - you are good, you always get back! I wonder what they ones you saw were...

Meggie - more global chestnut info! Thanks for that link. Did you have them in NZ? I seem to recall my NSW family saying they could buy them, quite expensively, brought in from Tasmania...

apprentice said...

Mmm I love chesnuts in any and every form. But my favourite is roast ones sold in a cone of newspaper from an outdoor stall. As a young woman living in Zurich it the best part of winter for me.

We have a few very old ones on estates here, but the weather isn't good enough to make the nuts fat and plump. I love hazel nuts too, but the squirrels always get there first.

Great shots too Lucy.

Dick said...

Good to see pictures of conkers in rude health. Nary a one around here this year - the leaf miner moth and bleeding canker have seen to them all. So sad.

As for chestnuts, they're just about the only confection au naturel that you can still buy in the streets of London. A paper bag from a cart containing a small brazier. A delight amongst the crap and the tat.

Bee said...

Perhaps my comparison was not a very good one, as I certainly don't think of you as a stranger . . but I do think of you as a woman of many talents and accomplishments!

Bee said...

Reading through this again, I caught a reference to a "Handbook for Explorers." Explain, please?

Lucy said...

Thanks again.

Anna, I didn't know you lived in Zurich! Scotland's probsbly usually too cold; I expect you can buy Spanish ones though...

Dick - that's very sad about the conkers, isn't it? There are som good conker trees in Lamballe, and there seemed to be quite a few there. Your children are just at an age to enjoy conkers too, I'd think.

Bee - you are spoiling me with your kind words! I meant to put a link on the Handbook for Explorers ref, as it's not immediately obvious. I've done so now.

It was the cycle of 50 sonnets that Joe Hyam (- Plutarch, above, who blogs 3 Beautiful Things a Day at Now's the Time, which is on my sidebar) wrote, and which I was privileged to illustrate with photos last year. The blog was called Compasses, and the link to it is still on the sidebar here too. It reads a little oddly, as I posted them 5 poems at a time, so the last 5 are of course the first ones to appear, as is the way of blogs, so really you'd need to go back to the first post and read them in sequence that way, as the order does matter. We couldn't really get round that...

It was such a wonderful project, I was quite bereft when it finished!

Julia said...

No Czech edible chestnuts here, but the horse variety make wonderful animals (with the addition of toothpicks) and are much admired for their beauty.

I'm sure I spelled the gateau recipe title wrong, my French should always come with (sp) attached ;-).

Gillian said...

thank you for your clear explanation... I googled the difference between horse and sweet chestnuts and found your blog. Its Autumn in New Zealand and I just gathered a whole lot of horse chestnuts...sadly!!! I wonder if there is any use for them naturally? thanks

Lucy said...

Hello Gillian, and glad to ahve been of use,I always wondered if anyone would find my blog that way!

Naturally if one lives somewhere without both kinds of chestnuts there's no reason you would Know the difference. The best use for a pile if horse chestnuts is admire their beauty, have a game of conkers, then plant ore horse chestnut trees!

Paul Hoover said...

Thank you for the beautiful essay and photos. I found it while searching for an interpretation of the Gerard Manley Hopkins' phrase, "Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls."