As I get to know my local Canberra greengrocer, Ziggy’s Fresh, I delight in each utterance of the phrase “Hey, Emma, what can you do with this?” I’m an eager competitor in this culinary adrenalin sport and take up the challenge with fervour. This week, the subject is chestnuts.
As an Australian, you’ll probably find yourself on a European holiday at some stage. You might even make the radical decision to head over in winter. And, should you choose to do so, you will most assuredly find yourself at a Christmas market, in some area roughly skirting the Danube. While doting on handmade decorations and sipping mulled wine you’ll no-doubt insist on finding a bag of roasted chestnuts.
But what happens upon your return? The memory of the much sought-after chestnuts is shelved in an album along with various photos of lederhosen and enormous beer steins, a forgotten vacation relic like that enormous sombrero you bought in Cancun.
Even as Aussie temperatures drop – albeit to a more manageable low – few of us seem to reach for the brazier and handful of chestnuts. It’s like a guarded border on the outskirts of our culinary familiarity: visa required from here. “Are you sure you want to go in there alone?”
My antipodean foodies, you needn’t be daunted nor should you refrain. Roaring fires, plane tickets and even Christmas music are not required to enjoy this nut. They’re grown in Australia, good for you and readily available at your local markets or greengrocer.
In the same way you embraced things like bolognese in the ’50s and lemongrass in the ’90s, chestnuts are about to have their heyday.
Have you ever seen a chestnut as it appears on the tree? A Facebook call-out, some logistical challenges and an unyielding wire fence later, I glimpsed my prey in the wild…
… that thing is SPIKY.
If you’ve only observed glistening barrels of them at the markets, you may never have known of the fortress from whence they emerged. Like a razor-sharp booby-trap, it will readily ensnare anyone who thinks to approach.
(Truthfully, other nuts should have greater regard for their personal safety.)
Here’s another thing you probably didn’t notice about chestnuts. (She says with the miffed tone of one about to accuse another of not complimenting their new hair-do.)
Even after picking and transit, the nuts maintain an adorable tuft of fibre atop each one. When viewed up close it resembles a little firework, shooting up into the sky. You have to love a food that does its own public relations campaign.
Those in possession of an oven are closer to a chestnut feast than they may have realised. Simply score the pointy end into a cross with a sharp knife, lay them on a baking tray and place in a hot oven until the shells have split open. No prior training required, just remember to peel them while they’re warm to make life a whole lot easier for yourself.
Once peeled you should be left with a soft, bright yellow, flattish dome. The flavour is not as nutty as you would expect, which is a thoroughly unhelpful description for newcomers. Sweet in taste and aroma, their warming glow extends beyond mere appearance – probably why they’re a cult favourite among those who try them.
If I say their texture is potato-like, you must believe me that I’m being complimentary. Terms like ‘earthy’ are often thrown in here… so let’s go with that.
Having ventured beyond your kitchen comfort zone and attempted home-roasted chestnuts, you may soon find yourself hungry for more. Not just multiple nuts, addictive as they may be, but innovation. What else can I do with them? Rest assured, the roasted chestnut wears many guises and can fit in at any party, this being a gastronomic metaphor for recipe, dish or repast.
‘Goes alright with anything’ is another way of putting it.
Recently I added a heaping handful to a pie filling that slowly cooked on my stovetop all Sunday. Onion and garlic played bass. (Resist the urge to think that’s a typo!) Ruby red chunks of beef were backup while soaked porcini mushrooms and their dark liquor hit the low notes. Fresh mushrooms were keeping time while an impossibly dark glass of Guinness gave it soul.
Finally, chestnuts revealed themselves, taking the lead by adding sweetness, texture, and intrigue. Shrinking violet status tempts them, so don’t chop too small! Pastry is a bonus. A chestnut motif placed atop each one, an homage.
(Possibly a little naff.)
If you’ve never had the pleasure of watching Nigella Lawson make a Mont Blanc dessert with chestnut purée, get thee to a YouTubing machine, anon! I’ve come to understand European epicureans know it as a mainstream condiment but in Oz you may need to find a specialty store. It’s sweet and buttery, like an adult Nutella or a tricked-out peanut butter.
Should you be wanting to try something sweet with your whole roasted beauties, you could candy them. Marron Glacé, as the French say. However, one must be warned that this process can take upwards of four days. To retort with a modern-day turn-of-phrase: ain’t nobody got time for dat.
A simpler version can be achieved by warming a sufficient* quantity of butter, salted being my preference, adding brown sugar and cinnamon, then throwing in the peeled and roasted chestnuts. The result is a caramelised nut in a gooey sauce, just desperate to be hurled ruthlessly at some ice cream.
* This means enough butter so as not to be a disappointment to the people who love you.
Chestnuts reside in dim and cozy nooks of our imagination. Held in gloved hands ready to warm us, inside and out. A shell of heavy brown satin, reminiscent of the hair colour with the same name.
But in a country like ours, where ‘winter’ can be as ‘low’ as twenty-five degrees, can a chestnut step into the light? Can it be part of a meal that doesn’t rely on cold weather to be enjoyed? Sure it can, this is a land of opportunity.
Think salad. Like Caesar but milder. Languid green leaves stretch out on the plate, embracing glistening chunks of sweet potato, the chestnut’s non-identical twin. Bacon needs no explanation. Something tart must play a role, perhaps a Granny Smith or a particularly firm Nashi pear sliced perilously thin.
Then, the roasted chestnuts have their flourish. Tossed first in warm maple syrup, any extra will boost the dressing. A thin aioli to get the perfect drizzle. Does it need a cheese? I’m not convinced either way, but blue seems logical. Or maybe poached chicken, though the nuts are plenty meaty enough to stand alone. A pale dressing, a light background, an ephemeral glow – chestnuts are in the spotlight at last.
So, can we agree to redeem the chestnut of the overseas holiday status and enjoy it readily on our shores from Easter to July? I’ll certainly be scooping up a few more at Ziggy’s this weekend. As the folks over at Chestnuts Australia say – pun alert – you’d be nuts not to try them!