On Winter and Chestnuts

Just in case you hadn’t noticed, the clocks changed a couple of weeks ago. This was great in the immediate short term, because it meant an extra hour of sleep, but upsetting when it began to get dark at around 5pm and I realised that we’re now, inescapably, in winter proper. From here on in, it’s only going to get colder, wetter and darker as we head towards the shortest day of the year on 21 December. Every year I forget just how cold and miserable this country gets in winter. It’s understandable that we have made such a hoohaa out of Christmas. It breaks up the six month slog of sleet, icy gales and grey puddles reflecting grey skies with something twinkly and cheerful.

There’s still over a month to go until Christmas, despite the fact that shops, magazines and adverts (and now me, sorry) are already going on about it. Until then, in an attempt to be more chirpy- could you tell I’m in a foul mood about the clocks changing?- I thought I would write about something which does bring me a little bit of happiness at this time of year. It’s chestnut season.

Serving suggestion. 'Still life with roasted chestnuts' by Georg Flegel (1566-1638)

Serving suggestion. ‘Still life with roasted chestnuts’ by Georg Flegel (1566-1638)

I realise that this doesn’t really cut the mustard for most people. In the face of impending dark afternoons, icy mornings and wind-chill factors all I’ve got for you is chestnuts. For me, however, chestnut season means a chance to indulge in one of my favourite ingredients and flavours. These delicious kernels can be used in so many ways, both sweet and savoury. I’m a walking cliché who loves the smell of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Despite my (half-arsed, I must say) attempt to boycott Starbucks, I may have to give in to temptation and try the ‘Chestnut Praline Latte’ they’re bringing out this year for the ‘holiday season’. Offer me something chestnut flavoured and my feelings about tax evasion go out of the window. [Edit: Apparently only the US will get to sample the delights of the chestnut latte. The UK gets a honey and almond hot chocolate instead. Devastated.]

Here, in a bizarre turn of events, I’ve decided to curate a few of my favourite ways to eat chestnuts. Yep, this is happening.

Chestnut Purée

My love of chestnut purée stems from time spent in France, where I would buy tins of the stuff and slather an unhealthy amount of it over my morning toast. It is also available in most supermarkets in the UK and the one made by Clément Faugier is my fave. It tastes like sweetened essence of chestnut. To avoid disappointment, double-check that you’re buying the sweet version and not the savoury one.

Chestnut Ice Cream

Chestnut ice cream is so popular in Paris that the famed ice cream parlour Berthillon is said to sell out within hours of it being put on the menu. If you can’t make it to the Île Saint-Louis to join the queue, Nigella Lawson provides a good alternative. Her recipe couldn’t be simpler. To make a 500ml tub, she advises that you mix 125g sweet chestnut purée with a tablespoon of dark rum. Any strong alcohol of your choice, which stops the mixture from freezing solid, will do. Then whip 150ml double cream with 25g icing sugar and fold this into the chestnut mixture. Once combined, pour into an airtight tub and store in the freezer for the week or so it takes for you to eat the whole lot.

Candied Chestnuts

Candied chestnuts, or marrons glacés, are sweet little nuggets which were originally delicacies in Southern France and Northern Italy. Eat them on their own, like sweets, or chop them up and sprinkle them over any and every dessert. They’re particularly good with the aforementioned chestnut ice cream. If you can be bothered with the faff, you can make them. If not, find them in fancy supermarkets or get them online.

Vacuum Packed Chestnuts

I hadn’t come across vacuum packed chestnuts before I made this recipe, but they are apparently very useful to keep in the cupboard for soups, salads and stuffing. The best way to use them is in this chestnut and pancetta dish, another one of Nigella’s (what can I say, I’m team Nigella all the way) which I ADORE. It’s comfort food of the highest order and a piece of piss to make.

Nigella's chestnut and pancetta pasta, unfortunately made by me and not Nigella.

Nigella’s chestnut and pancetta pasta, unfortunately made by me and not Nigella.

To make enough for four, heat a teaspoon of garlic oil in a heavy pan before frying off 200g pancetta. Nigella suggests a slab cut into 1cm dice, but those little packs of pre-cubed lardons make life a bit easier. In the meantime, cook 250g pappardelle pasta according to packet instructions. Once the pancetta is browned, add 25g butter to the pan before squeezing 100g chestnuts out of their vacuum pack. I usually add a bit more than 100g worth, because the chestnuts are the best bit of this meal. Then squash and break up the chestnuts with any suitable implement you have to hand, mix everything together and pour in 50ml marsala. Let it bubble away and become caramelised and sticky. Before draining the pasta, reserve a small cup-full of pasta water and pour into the pancetta pan. Add the drained pasta to the pan along with a tablespoon of chopped chives and a tablespoon of chopped parsley. Add a little more butter if you’re a glutton like me. Stir and serve.

Chestnut Beer and Chestnut Liqueur

Chestnuts and alcohol combined, what’s not to like? If you happen to be jetting off to Sardinia or Corsica, where chestnut tree forests cover large swathes of both islands, you’ll be able to find chestnut beer in any and every supermarket. Here in the UK, look out for ‘Mr Trotter’s Great British Chestnut Ale‘ made by Lancaster Brewery, the first chestnut beer to be brewed and bottled in the UK.

In the course of my chestnut research, I came across this article by John Wright which tells you how to make chestnut liqueur. It looks extremely fiddly and possibly quite rage inducing (‘500g chestnuts, PEELED’) but might be an acceptable way to spend a Sunday afternoon if the result is any good. It had better be good. I’m going to source the ingredients and a kilner jar and get on it next weekend, because I’m wild like that.

 

If you made it to the end, thanks for sitting through this rant about the onset of winter and the surreal tangent it took about recipes for chestnut season. If you don’t like chestnuts, I can only apologise for going on. And on.

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