Fresh fallen firecoals

chestnuts loose

fresh fallen firecoals

Once again the chestnut trees are dropping their glossy nuts, and the squirrels and I are in a fierce but silent battle. My grandfather planted several varieties of Chinese chestnut so he would have an extended harvest. What made him think to do that? He was a lawyer, he read the Wall Street Journal and sipped his drink. Yet he was a fervent chicken-necker of crabs, picker of beans, of wineberries. Did he know we might need it? Because he read the Wall Street Journal?

The first tree that ripens is on the other side of the lane from my garden so I don’t hear it as well as the second one. The nuts are covered with a satiny down, and tend to be a little smaller than the others. Those are ripening now, and the squirrels are silently aware of each burr that opens. I have heard people say it will be a wet, cold winter. It has been a while since we have had heavy snow. Chestnuts are very nutritious; in fact in French one old name for a chestnut tree is arbre a pain: tree of bread.

Remember hearing about how the hallucinatory smut fungus called ergot on rye was the cause of people being accused of being witches? People would actually confess to flying around on broomsticks, when they were actually tripping. Many grain crops are problematic in wet climates. They tend to “lodge” or lie down due to rain and wind, where they rot. Often in rainy Europe in the old days the wheat crop would fail and peasants would go hungry.  Many people relied on chestnuts to survive. Italy and France have lots of chestnuts. They used to smoke-dry them in special chestnut smoking houses, since chestnuts will otherwise be wormy inside a week. There are many ancient chestnut based dishes which tend to be heavy and nutritious. I used to trick my grandmother into eating by reminding her of how she used to eat chestnut puree at her landlady’s house when she was in graduate school in France in the Twenties. Charmed by the memory, my anorexic granny would absently spoon down piles of the rich puree de marron I had made from the chestnuts my grandfather had planted, while we talked about Alsace and the calorie counter in my head spun happily.

chestnuts

These silky ones mature first

When gathering chestnuts, squeeze each chestnut, especially if it seems unusually dark. Fresh, firm, bright nuts are what you want. Refrigerate them if you aren’t going to process them immediately. Make one long slash through the skin and bake them until they pop open. From there you can put them in the blender for creamy soup, eat them as is, boil them and mash them or rice them, candy them, dry and grind them into flour, or throw them for the dog. They do not have a nice texture if frozen; it is sort of heavy and gummy. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter after cooking.

There are two trees on the farm that have very glossy chestnuts. These are the fresh fallen firecoals I refer to, after Gerard Manly Hopkins. ( This link will send you to last years chestnut rhapsody, in which I discuss Hopkins, which is such great stuff.) Startlingly reddish brown- chestnuts are chestnut- they are so shiny that the best way to get them gathered is by children, whose small hands reach for the beautiful things, to carry them home in a sack and caress them. Just make sure they don’t try to pick them out of the chestnut burrs, which are like small hedgehogs. Those spines stick and break off under your skin. Do wear gloves if you touch them. It generally isn’t necessary. Most ripe nuts just fall right out. Go squirrels!

chinese chestnut burrs

beware of spiky burrs

And remember to wear shoes walking under that tree next year. My dear stepdaughter was walking barefoot unawares under a chestnut tree a few years ago and let fly a few expletives, then realized that her new aunt was being baptized in the swimming pool within earshot.  I’m pretty sure the angels were guffawing all over the place.

So go pick them, slash them, and bake them. My other article is more how to.

Chestnuts

chinese chestnut tree (3)

The chestnuts have begun to fall, “fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls,” as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote. I was tightening the raspberry trellis when I heard the telltale rattle of the fat nuts falling on the gravel lane. My grandfather planted a number of Chinese chestnuts, and I think he planted different cultivars so as to have trees that ripened at different times. (This is something to remember when you are planting any food-producing plant.  Early, mid-season, and late, from tomatoes to apples.) The first one has smaller, silky nuts, while the second one has larger, glossy reddish brown nuts, and the last one has really big glossy nuts of the same fine color for which women with chestnut hair are admired. It is a color that makes me pick up more nuts than I later have time to peel. There are two others, but they don’t bear heavily enough so I leave them to the squirrels, whose population seems to follow a heavy bearing year like a too-late sine wave. Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls. Praise God for the color.

You really should check out Hopkins. I met the greatest living Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, when I was at university, and I asked him whether he maybe felt the influence of Hopkins in his work. Ever polite, ever charmingly Irish, he answered me with the perfect no-answer: “Ah yes, he’s an old flame for all of us, isn’t he?”  (Maybe, maybe not, but we love him, or maybe we loved him once but have moved on…)  chestnuts loose (1)

So what to do with chestnuts. Everybody loves them roasted. Squeeze the nuts as you pick them up. If they are soft, they probably have grubs inside them, which is still fine for animal consumption. If hard, make an x in the shell- I find it easier to cut the flat side but they peel easier if you cut the round side. Some folks just make a big slit on the round side. You can bake them for 15-20 minutes at 400F and the little corners will roll back. Let them cool a bit and then you can pick them open and eat them. So filling and delicious! They have a floury sweet interior when they are done.

For a meal, I cut them the same as for roasting, and boil them about 25 minutes with a little salt. This may be too long since they do crumble a bit while I am peeling them but I want them really soft. With this I can do a lot of things. The best meal I ever prepared with chestnuts was some leftover wild Canada goose, warmed in gravy, with  wild rice mixture and pureed chestnuts. I just put them in the food processor with good stock from the goose carcass. It was so regional, rich in flavor, perfect for winter.

Also, by putting a few cooked chestnuts in the blender (love my Vitamix) with a veggie boullion cube (I like Knorr’s flavor), a cup of half and half, and a little chestnut boiling water to thin it out, you can get a wonderful vegan cream style soup. My friend Margie Wegener made it for me when I was having rocky times with my daughter. Thanks Margie.

Chestnuts rice beautifully. I pushed some through a ricer and fed it to my grandmother.  She always worried about her weight, because her mother had been heavy, but she really was too thin herself. We could always tempt her, though, by connecting the food to a story.  As a young girl getting her master’s degree at Strasbourg University in the Twenties, she lived with a lady known to us as Madame F. Madame F was “gourmet et gourmand,” and we always heard how she made chestnut puree. So Granny would eat chestnut puree and talk about Madame F.

Once you have your peeled cooked chestnuts you can make all kinds of fabulous desserts as well; totally go Martha Stewart. Amazing recipes.

Chestnuts were a dependable staple in Europe before wheat, which was very prone to getting flattened by rain and rotting in the fields, leaving the peasants to starve- unless they had chestnuts. We saw tons of edible chestnuts growing wild in the south of France. They used to call them “arbre à pain” which means “bread tree”   as well as marronniers for the bigger chestnuts and châtaigniers for the smaller ones.  They had chestnut smoking houses. I tried drying them in the oven, but the resulting nuts were so hard that even my grinding mill turned out something like sand. I think perhaps if I soaked them and boiled them they would return to their fabulous yumminess but in the meantime no creature will attack them and I keep them for emergency food.  So I am still learning. But companies like Trails End Chestnuts are selling chestnut flour, chestnut beer-making kits, dried chestnut, which look untoasted to me, for prices that are actually reasonable after you have done the work yourself for a few hours.

Update!

Forget cutting an x in the flat side of the chestnut before boiling or baking. With a finely serrated kitchen knife, make on long cut through the shell on the curved side of the nut. Bake covered for 30 mins in a casserole, and it will pop right open. You can flick off the shell with your thumb. Easy! I use a covered Pyrex so I can see it and then let it roast open for a nice roasted taste. Also with the nuts I am looking to convert to storable food, I put them in the food processor and crumb finely.  This I will refer to as wet chestnut meal. It is wonderful for a creamy blender soup or just about anything you do with chestnut puree. You can freeze this or spread it on cloth-covered cookie sheets to dry in the sun or slow oven, after which I put it back in the blender to flour. This is  a little gritty but really delicious, nutritious, and easy to store in sealed glass jars. I did make spelt-chestnut cookies the other day, with honey and raisins, adapted from an old British recipe my mother gave me. If I can figure out this newsletter widget I will put it there for you.

Another update!

Two new recipes!

Chestnut Chard Soup

2 c. water

1/2 a Knorr vegetable boullion cube, or to taste any kind you like

1 chard leaf

1/2 c. wet chestnut meal,

Throw in Vitamix and turn on, check for flavor, adjust, run until it gets hot and thick enough. OK, if you don’t have a Vitamix yet, I’m telling you, unless you don’t do electricity, this is a great appliance. They last. Mine is from the Eighties and my sister-in-law still has hers from the Seventies.

If you are using a regular blender and haven’t made the chestnuts into wet meal, cook the chestnuts in bouillion until soft and then blend with the raw chard. You can add turmeric, black pepper, cream, whatever. So good and easy.

Chard and Chestnut Saute- this dish is healthy but comforting, greeny but meaty and the chestnuts offset any wateriness in the chard. I was thinking you could substitute parmesan cheese for the ham if you don’t do pig.

1 onion, chopped

1/4 c. country ham, chopped

8 chestnuts (cooked) chopped

1 large bunch chard, enough to fill a 4 quart pot

Black pepper

Wash chard and strip leaf off of midrib. Grasp the midrib and pull the leaf through your other hand, pulling off the leaf and leaving the strip white or colorful part separated. This is the midrib. Chop it up.

Saute onion, ham, chestnuts, and chopped chard stems (midribs) in a deep heavy pot in the ham’s own fat. Meanwhile chop the leaf of the chard up into about 1/4 inch chop. When the stuff in the pot looks caramelized and yummy, throw in the leaves and saute. In a few minutes the dish will be ready to serve. Taste and adjust salt, definitely add some black pepper.