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Thursday, 16 October 2008

Some Things to do with Chestnuts

Autumn definitively has caught up with us again and our brief Indian summer has come to an abrupt end. It started raining heavily in the early hours of this morning and as I write this (10 a.m.) it hasn’t even got properly bright yet.
Yesterday we went out chestnut hunting and came back with several kilos of this beautiful fruit. Going out into the woods is quite dangerous at this time of the year, especially on Wednesdays and Sundays. That’s when the hunters are out in droves, shooting at anything that moves and is not dressed in bright orange. So we stuck to minor roads rather than venturing right into the woods. However, there are so many chestnut trees around here that during the war chestnuts became the main food source for the inhabitants of the area. Some of the older generation say they never want to eat another chestnut, because they ate nothing else during the war. I reckon though, rather than being sick of the flavour of this delicious and versatile fruit they are tired of peeling the damn things! Our friend Carlo tells of his main childhood memory of the war being, having to grind the coffee mill day-in and day-out to make chestnut flour. Bread made exclusively from chestnut flour does not rise well, so tends to be hard and heavy, but it can be added to ordinary flour to make a fragrant loaf or used to make pasta or pancakes.

So after we returned from our expedition we started using them having found some interesting recipes for preserving them. Here I’d like to share a couple of them with you. A few general tips first:
First of all a warning: all these recipes of course are for the sweet chestnut, which is no relation to the horse chestnut, which is more common in more northerly climes and is poisonous. Horse chestnuts are great for playing conkers or to make little stick animals with but not for eating!
When out picking chestnuts, bring a pair of sturdy gloves, so you can free them easily from their prickly shells.
If you are picking sweet chestnuts in the wild always add an extra 10% on recipe quantities to allow for any slightly rotten or worm infested ones you may have to throw away.
To peel chestnuts, first cut a slit into the skin of each nut and put them into a saucepan covered with cold water. Bring to the boil and simmer for about 20 minutes. As soon as cool enough to handle, pull off the shells and as much of the inner skin as possible.

Castagne Sotto Whisky
Ingredients: 1 kg Chestnuts, 1 litre whisky, 500g sugar
Method: Peel chestnuts as described above. Choose the largest and best looking chestnuts and keep them as whole as possible. Place the whisky in a saucepan and stir in the sugar. Bring the mixture to the boil. Add the chestnuts and turn off the heat. Leave to cool and bottle into clean jars. Serve as a dessert on ice-cream with a drizzle of honey.

As this is out of my Ligurian recipe book, there was really only one whisky that should be used for this, Glen Grant 5 Year Old Single Malt Whisky. This has long been the best selling whisky in Italy and made Italy the largest importer of malt whiskies well before they became popular anywhere else. This reminds me of a little Scottish prayer which goes like this:

The Lord is my shepherd,
I shall not want
As long as there’s whisky
In Glen Grant.
And if it’s gone,
No more to pour,
We’ll up the line
To Cragganmore!

Cragganmore being a distillery just up the road from Glen Grant in the Spey Valley of the Highlands of Eastern Scotland.

Also from ‘Ligura in Arbanello’ by Laura Rangoni:

Marmellata di Fagioli e Castagne
This is a kind of substitute for the ubiquitous Nutella, just better and less sickly sweet.
Ingredients: 400g dried white beans, 150g sugar, 400g chestnuts
Method: Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water. Drain and boil in fresh water until soft, then whiz them to a fine puree in a food processor. In the meantime peel the chestnuts as described above and chop them finely. Put the bean puree back into the saucepan and, over a low flame stirring constantly, add the sugar. Once the sugar is dissolved, add the chopped chestnuts, taking the mixture off the heat. Bottle immediately into hot jars, seal and turn upside down for about half an hour. Use as a sandwich spread.

Chestnut Sorbet
Ingredients: 300g chestnuts, 1 vanilla pod, 150g sugar, 400ml milk.
Method: Peel chestnuts as described above. Put the peeled chestnuts in a small saucepan with the vanilla pod and sugar. Add 100 ml of water & simmer gently until the liquid becomes syrupy. Scrape the seeds out of the vanilla pod into the syrup. Puree in a blender to a fine paste, then slowly add the milk. Churn in an ice-cream machine.

Finally something that we are going to make today for the freezer in anticipation of Christmas:
Chestnut stuffing
(quantities for a chicken or guinea fowl. Double for a turkey)
450g chestnuts, 450g sausage meat, 1 onion, 50g sultanas, ½ tbsp sugar, pinch cinnamon, 25g butter, salt & pepper to taste, a little tomato juice to moisten.
Peel chestnuts as described above. Slice onions & fry in the butter until golden, then add the sausage meat & cook gently for a few minutes. Do not allow the onions to turn brown. Add the tomato juice, sugar, salt & pepper and the cinnamon. Stir together until well blended, then add the chestnuts, previously minced, and the sultanas. Mix well & allow to cool before stuffing your bird. (Recipe taken from ‘The Wildfoods Cookbook’ by Joy Spoczyinska).

There are many more things which can be made from chestnuts. We will keep a few to dry to turn to flour, there are numerous chestnut soup recipes around (made one last night), or you can make chestnut puree instead of mashed potatoes. See if we can’t get to the stage of being fed up with chestnuts! Anybody with any further suggestions what to do with chestnuts, please post them on the commentary. The best entry may get a prize, if there are a few suggestions.

Well it’s afternoon in the meantime and we’re starting to be thoroughly fed up with peeling chestnuts. In the famous words of Jimi Hendrix: “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!”. At least it was a productive day indoors as the rain still comes down outside. It’s supposed to get better again tomorrow, so the plan is to cut some wood and see to our wines brewing in Villa.

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