Crazy About Chestnuts!

August 16, 2019


Having experienced a very cold weekend in the Blue Mountains Australia recently, with substantial snowfalls, my mind naturally wandered to . . . chestnuts!  There is nothing more nurturing than eating hot roasted chestnuts (a favourite), especially when its snowing or a bit on the cool side, at least!

Of all the foods sustaining humanity since time immemorial, the humble chestnut tree is like a 'food saviour':  Chestnuts are one of humanity's earliest and most enduring food sources, especially through Europe, Asia, Africa and America.  (Castanea dentata were the chestnut variety enjoyed by Native Americans before varieties from Europe and China were introduced later.) A delicious 'nutty potato' taste, they are rich in carbohydrates, fibre, protein, low fat, contain vitamin C - even selenium.  Chestnuts were eventually introduced  to countries like Australia as well - in cooler climates with distinct seasons - like here in the Blue Mountains.  There is something really exciting about collecting chestnuts here in Autumn, visiting chestnut farms in Mt Irvine and Mt Wilson.  However, over the last few days I have also been enjoying Australian-grown chestnuts in Winter!  These particular chestnuts came from Victoria and are some of the best I have ever tasted.  It gives such a deep connection with humanity down through the ages as these pungent, satisfying nuts are enjoyed!

Chestnuts were an important part of the early Roman economy, and a history of being the only food source keeping humanity alive in certain regions of the world, especially in times of war, hardship and isolation.  I was intrigued to read somewhere that chestnut flour was always used for pasta making in Italy, before wheat flour was subsequently adopted.  Chestnut timber has also been highly-prized and as some of these trees can live for 1,000 years, they are not only productive (and rot-resistant), but very beautiful trees in their own right, providing a wonderful canopy of shade in Summer.

While there are numerous recipes for chestnuts, both sweet and savoury, I  still prefer them best roasted over the fire, or in the oven, the next best option, then wrapped in a towel to retain the warmth and the skins easy to peel, a glass of wine or liqueur nearby.  Favourite recipes include Chocolate Chestnut Cake (making the flour with cooked chestnuts first) so that when cooked, this cake has a dense, fudge-like consistency.  Chestnut Lentil Roast, cooked only at Christmas,  and entirely plant-based, is another firm favourite.  While the ingredients vary, depending on what's available, this Roast also contains fresh herbs, spices, mushrooms, besan or buckwheat flour to bind all the ingredients together in a firm loaf.

One of my dreams was to cook the Chestnut Lentil Roast in Italy at Christmas and this was realized not too long ago.  Fortunate enough to be visiting Venice for a few weeks between December and January, regular trips on the vaporetto to the Rialto Markets nearby were an unforgetable experience, as I gathered the necessary ingredients to make 'the' roast.  Naturally, beautiful brown Italian lentils were used in this recipe!  Lentils are a tradition at Christmas in Italy, so this felt so appropriate!  Added to all these sensory delights were the beautiful little Venetian bakeries dotted through the city selling plump, sugary, glace chestnuts, a Christmas delicacy.  I had never seen such enourmous chestnuts. Pure heaven!

It is a pity then, that chestnuts, especially in my culture, are considered "a lot of work" and not appreciated nearly enough. They are an important, sustainable food source for the 21st century.  Industrialization of agriculture has resulted in around a dozen crops and 5 animals (cattle, chickens, buffalos, pigs, goats) predominantly feeding the world, reducing diversity and nutrition.  61% of our calories come from just 12 crops.  Lack of diversity also results in crops (and animals) that are vulnerable to disease, pests and increasing inability to cope with climate volatility, which we are now seeing more of.

Everyone of us a consumers, has a part to play in contributing to a more robust, just and sustainable food system by eating less of the more common crops such as wheat, rice, sugar, corn and instead eating alternative grains, legumes, nuts and of course, fruit and vegetables.  I would like to suggest that chestnuts need to be given a bit of emphasis here too!

A most enjoyable way to lighten the 'work' around kilos and kilos of collected chestnuts (at a local level at least) and one I can vouch for, is to host a Chestnut Processing Party!  Neighours, family and friends can all play their part, sitting around a long table cutting the flat side of each chestnut, with pots of water on the stove ready to cook these slit chestnuts for around 30 minutes. Keep the local wine and nibbles flowing please! Once cooked, back these little gems come to the long table, wrapped in towels, where  the cooked flesh is scooped out and when cool, placed in containers to be stored in the freezer for later use. Done. Easy. Fun!

As there is zero waste with this fabulous, sustainable food, the skins and other residue can go on the garden or given to your hens, if you have them.

If anyone reading this blog has some chestnut stories to share, it would be great to hear from you. Can't  get too much of this 'magnificent obsession'!

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