Chestnuts roasting on an open fire...

chestnuts

It doesn't matter where you are, standing on the street corner of a busy city for example, but the smell of roasting chestnuts brings memories of crisp autumnal days flooding back.

The name 'chestnut' is derived from an old English term 'chesten nut' which itself comes from an old French word 'chastain' - today, 'châtaigne'. The edible sweet chestnut is not to be confused with the horse chestnut or conker.

Chestnuts were once a staple in harder times in parts of France eaten much like potatoes, usually boiled and eaten plain, but today they are a treat either roasted, candied ('marrons glaces') or transformed into cakes, sauces, jams or even a liqueur.

The trees can grow up to 30 metres in height and live for around 450 years. The fruit can be peeled and eaten raw, although it can cause digestive discomfort, so they are best when treated in some way through cooking or preserving. Once cooked, its texture is slightly similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet, and nutty flavour.

Chestnuts can be dried and milled into flour, which can then be used to prepare breads, cakes, pancakes, pastas, or used as a thickener for stews, soups, and sauces.

The nuts can also be eaten candied, boiled, steamed, deep fried, grilled, or roasted in sweet or savoury recipes. They can be used to stuff vegetables and poultry etc.

Harvesting is from the start of October to early November and is labour-intensive. The trees tend to grow up in the hills and mountains in the Languedoc-Roussillon and it is around this time that the 'Fête des Châtaignes' are held. Local producers bring their chestnut produce for you to sample and buy. Chestnuts are picked in autumn, and candied from the start of the following summer for the ensuing Christmas. Thus the 'marrons glacés' eaten at Christmas are those picked the year before.

Unlike other nuts and seeds, chestnuts are relatively low in calories, containing less fat but rich in minerals, vitamins and phyto-nutrients.

chestnuts

At this time of year, a great day out is to take a pair of gardening gloves and go down to the forest to collect the fallen chestnuts. The ripe ones are those where the prickly green outer husks have started to split. Choose nuts that are shiny and free from blemishes and avoid any nuts that are cracked or shrivelled. Once chestnuts have started to dry out they will lose their flavour, a good tip is to rattle the shells and if you hear movement you know that they are drying out inside.

To Roast Chestnuts

Heat the oven to 200°C/400°F or gas mark 6. Roasting does not require peeling but you do need to score the skin first to allow for expansion during cooking. Place in a roasting pan and bake until the skins have opened and the inside of the nuts are soft - this normally takes about half an hour.

Petit Mont Blanc Meringues

Petit Mont Blanc Meringues

For a delicious recipe, click here for an easy dessert of Petit Mont Blanc Meringues using the sweetened chestnut puree, crème de marrons de l'Ardeche.