By The Twig - Well Seasoned, Dec 14 2014 10:01PM
If we said chestnuts to you, what comes to mind? We'd wager good money that a cosy fire, dark nights and a general sense of snug Christmassy nostalgia would be among your first thoughts. Is the mention of any other ingredient so comforting and emotive?
Late October through to late December is the season of the sweet chestnut. A native of the Mediterranean, many of the original chestnut trees in the UK were planted by the Romans and the Latin name "castan" can be found in various guises across Europe including Wales (castan) France (châtaigne) and our own derivation, chestnut.
Interestingly, for a food now so quintessentially seasonal and British, very few of the chestnuts sold in the UK are grown here. The chances are that, if you buy chestnuts in the UK (even from a market) they will have come from abroad, most likely France. We're not quite sure why that is but presumably the 20 year growing period of your average tree makes it, at the very least, quite a long term investment.
We've all lobbed the odd stick into a chestnut tree in the hope of dislodging a spiky prize or two but (and this is speaking as someone who once had a "discussion" with the Royal Parks Police on the matter) it's best not to do this unless you own the tree. Picking them up from the ground will ensure they are ripe, although of course you need to get there before the squirrels do, but getting to them early (earlier than mid-December when we're writing this blog!) will also ensure that they don't get damp. Damp is the enemy of the chestnut as they will quickly rot so, once foraged, make sure you store them in a dry, well ventilated place.
For the Well Seasoned team, nothing beats a traditional roast chestnut. Get a crackling fire going and throw a handful of chestnuts into a roasting pan (make sure you cut a small cross in the top of each nut first, to prevent any unwanted explosions and a dash across the living room to stamp out burning embers). After about 10 minutes, depending on the heat of your fire, your nuts should be beautifully roasted and easy to peel. If you haven't got an open fire you can roast in the oven at 200 C for about 25 minutes (again, cutting them first). If you've got a large number you can grind the roasted nuts into chestnut flour which makes a delicious (and gluten free) base for pancakes and shortbread.
There's an old Corsican saying that "he who has nothing will not eat. If you want flour, go gather chestnuts." We'd love to end this blog post on an educational high note by telling you what it means. Unfortunately, we have no idea. Enjoy your chestnuts this Christmas!