Updated: May 1
Discovering fresh chestnuts is like a winter cooking festival and so worth the peeling work!
Chestnut cooking was a new experience for me when I moved to the Snowy Valleys of Australia. Never really common in Québec, I had only previously seen them being roasted and sold on European streets and tasted the French confectionery "marrons glacés" (glazed chestnuts) before moving to the Snowy Valleys where they are produced locally (You will understand later in this article the sad reason why they are not such a common or readily available product in Canada). I was excited to experiment with chestnuts but I admit that it took me a while to get into them. With practice, I got better at peeling them and enjoyed their versatility. Chestnuts are like any other culinary nut: the edible part is starchy and moist, and does not keep for long at room temperature so they need to be refrigerated. Reacting like various fruits, they also contain vitamin C and not much protein. They need to be cooked for peeling and, once cooked, they can be eaten; used in recipes or stored in the fridge for a few days and longer in the freezer. The sweetness and flavour of chestnuts differ in variety and cooking methods. They are considered, botanically, as a true nut, like the hazelnuts (another beautiful versatile nut produced in our region), but as they have so many different nutritional features, food allergies to chestnuts seem to be rare.
Chestnut season • Photo © Bottle and Brush Studio 2022
There are two types of chestnut trees and one of them produces non-edible seeds, called "horse chestnuts". If you intend foraging chestnuts to eat, make sure you find the edible variety! These will produce fruit protected by a very sharp spiny casing (don't grab it without gloves as it is ultra sharp!). When the fruit reaches maturity this casing will turn yellow-brown, fall from the tree and open up releasing one to a few nuts. The brown shiny husk has a pointed end and a pale brown scar, with one or two flat sides. Underneath is another thin layer of papery skin protecting the creamy white fruit. Chestnuts have to be cooked and then peeled while still hot. The good news is that the chestnut harvest season is from late autumn until early winter, and it is perfect for some fire cooking as they are lovely roasted on the brazier. Australian High Country winter's climate and altitude level is just right for the chestnut trees, and growers of Tumbarumba and Batlow produce them successfully. The chestnuts are harvested with a tractor that vacuums the nuts, removing the spiky casing. They are then washed and graded and kept in a cool room before distribution. Chestnuts were introduced to Australia during the gold rush, and many varieties are produced and available from mid-March to July. Find more information about Australian chestnuts here.
Chestnut farming in Tumbarumba • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2022
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire ("The Christmas Song") is the song that always comes into my head while roasting these things! It makes me a bit nostalgic for Xmas in winter, as in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are upside down (though my husband says the northern hemisphere is upside down). However, in Québec we never cooked chestnuts on an open fire and now I know how that feels! The smell of chestnuts cooking on a brazier and the peeling that keeps your hands warm is quite pleasant, especially when sharing that moment with friends or family. The writers of this song were referring to childhood memories before the Asian blight wiped out nearly all of the American chestnuts. These very tall native chestnut trees were hardy enough for the North American climate and were dominant natural trees in the Appalachian forests (from the Eastern United States to the South East of Canada). The wood was durable and was used for furniture and more. However, they were not resistant to the chestnut blight and trees were devastated following the very fast spread of this disease. This ecological disaster happened in the early 20th century when Japanese chestnut trees were introduced and thought to be a better choice for agriculture... Still today, the recovery is not so promising and the original American chestnuts are considered close to extinction in the wild. As this is the only variety of chestnut trees that can be grown in Canada's climate, this explains why chestnuts are not part of our terroir and common traditions. To know more about the history of American chestnuts, read this article from the Laidback Gardener (a renowned Canadian horticultural writer who left this world in 2022).
Roasting chestnuts on an open fire • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2022
GROWING & COOKING TIPS
There are different ways to prepare chestnuts and the best are boiled, roasted or grilled. The peel, first and foremost, has to be scored to prevent bursting. Boiled chestnuts are good for adding in a soup, dip and spread. You only need to make one cut on the peeled half across the width of the flatter side and bring to a boil for 5 minutes if you want to keep them a bit more solid, and for tender flesh, boil them for up to 15 minutes. For roasting or grilling, you cut a shallow X on each nut and cook them in an oven or on the grill until the shell splits open. This way reveals the flavours of the nuts much more distinctly and keeps the texture firm. Peeling can be a bit of work but will keep your hands warm as they need to be hot while you remove both skins. Some varieties will peel easier than others. A good tip is to place your chestnuts in a bowl with cold water after you cut them for about 5 minutes before cooking. As soon as they are cooked, wrap your chestnuts in a clean tea towel for 5 minutes and remove a chestnut one by one to peel while still warm. Check out this Roasting Chestnuts post for more tips about roasting and peeling.
Chestnut cooking festival at home • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2022
Chestnuts of our region can be purchased in season directly at the farm where they are produced, or in local produce shops and co-ops. Make sure you choose firm, heavy, unblemished nuts that do not rattle when shaking them and keep them in a cool dry place (fridge is best) until needed (I would not wait more than 10 days). If you want to grow your own, you need space as they are big trees and you'll also need two for cross-pollination. You also need patience as it will take them a few years to start producing. If you know someone that has trees on their land and is not very interested in cooking the nuts (which often happens!), ask them if you can pick some before the birds and critters get a feast on them. And as for cooking ideas, wow there are so many! You can use them in any savoury dish like vegetables or potato side, blend in soup and dips, make stuffings, make gluten-free cretons, desserts, etc. A fabulous French confectionery you can also make if you like a bit of cooking challenge is the "marrons glacés", meaning iced or glazed chestnuts. It takes about a week to make and is so worth it. You'll understand after tasting them and know why they are expensive and rare if you are cooking them successfully!
"Marrons Glacés" (glazed chestnuts) • Photography © Bottle and Brush Studio 2022
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