There's little more festive than roasting foraged chestnuts on an open fire, but don't save them for Christmas, says Dulcima.
We have the Romans to thank for Britain's abundance of Sweet Chestnut trees. They highly rated chestnuts as a cookery ingredient and rightly so: these beautiful, shiny nuts are wonderfully versatile and, in spite of what the name may suggest, they are equally at home in sweet or savoury dishes.
For those who enjoy gathering their food from the wild, you can find them throughout autumn. A good technique for freeing the nuts from their sharp-needled shells is to use your foot (with shoe!) to 'press and roll' over the nuts and they should pop out easily.
The chestnut season is brief, but whole peeled chestnuts, either canned or vacuum-packed, are available from major supermarkets. Dried chestnuts are also available from health food stores, but must be soaked in water overnight then simmered before use. 450g fresh chestnuts (weighed in their shells) are equivalent to 175g dried, reconstituted chestnuts or 350g tinned or vacuum packed nuts. Canned chestnut purée, plain or sweetened, is a godsend as it saves hours of preparation. I make an unusual (but very easy) ice cream by stirring together whipping cream, icing sugar and a tin of sweetened chestnut purée.
Fresh chestnuts must always be cooked before use and are never eaten raw, owing to their tannic acid content. You need to remove the chestnuts from their skins by either boiling or roasting them. For both options, first make a small incision in the skin or you'll have a house full of chestnut shrapnel as they will explode. If cooking over an open fire, keep one whole as when this explodes you know the others are done (not a method for the overly house proud!). Once cooked, peel off the tough shell and the papery thin skin underneath. Peel the nuts whilst hot (it's impossible to peel a cold chestnut!) to ensure the complete removal of the inner brown furry skin, called the 'tan', which is bitter.
The texture of the cooked nuts means that they can be a very useful alternative to flour in desserts as they can be blitzed in a food processor into a fine crumb. Chocolate and chestnuts are a heavenly combination; the French celebrate this with Bûche de Noël, a chocolate log filled with a chestnut purée served at Christmas, or try Mary Cadogan's Chestnut truffle cake. The Italians use chestnuts in Montebianco, where thick chestnut purée is topped with cream to replicate the mountain after which it is named. But for me the ultimate celebration of the chestnut is marrons glacés, in which the chestnuts are cooked in sugar syrup of increasing concentration, saturating the nut with sugar through a process similar to osmosis.
In savoury dishes chestnuts are the epitome of earthy rustic cooking. Use whole in stews and casseroles or as a purée instead of mashed potato. They are also a very welcome accompaniment to a roast dinner: there is the traditional chestnut stuffing, but you can also cook them whole alongside your meat, and they're a very good friend to your Christmas sprouts.
Chestnut flour, made from dried ground chestnuts, is worth seeking out from larger supermarkets, specialist food shops and delicatessens. The pale brown flour has an unusual but pleasant smoky flavour and is gluten-free and nutritious. I use it to make tasty breads, pancakes, fritters and cakes and as a thickener for soups and stews. I picked up a recipe in Tuscany for a fabulous chestnut cake, made with chestnut flour, walnuts, rosemary, raisins and olive oil. I serve it warm, when the inside is still creamy - it's delicious on its own or with cheese. Chestnut flour doesn't keep well, but can be frozen, well wrapped, until needed.
How do you cook chestnuts?