Chestnut trees were not common in Australian forty years ago, but my father knew where they were hidden. As did all the other Italian immigrants. Every Autumn there would be a secretive race to see who could get to the trees first and return home with the bounty. Papa was a bad loser. He’d pick them green off the tree and put them in a dark place for a month to ripen, rather than let the Calabrian families get to them first.
Here, the trees are plentiful, and you’re more likely to receive generous encouragement than jealous hoarding in discussions of where to gather. You still need to get out there, but only because if you don’t collect now, you’ll lose them to the damp, or to the animals. This morning, we gathered over three kilos in around 20 minutes.
If we get a chance and if the weather holds good over the next couple of weekends, we’ll have a poke around to see if we can find not just chestnuts, but also marron. There is no marked difference in taste, but the marron tend to be just a bit fatter, given that there is just one nut encassed in each thorny globe, instead of two or three nestled together as with the chestnuts.
The marron – The General showed me this morning – have distinguished stripes, whereas chestnuts are smooth. And the rectangular bottoms of the marron are more defined. In the photo above, the Marron is on the left.
We don’t use gloves, but I suppose we could. Rather, we just release them by rolling the prickly case a little with our foot, so that they pop out.
For years I thought the only way to cook chestnuts was by roasting them over a hot fire, and then wrapping them in paper and an old towel. In my family, we’d crack and rub away the blackened skins, and then slide the floury nut across a wad of butter before popping them into our mouth. With charcoal stained and greasy fingers, we’d stuff ourselves full, and the half glass of red wine was obligatory. Papa would tell us stories of poverty, and of collecting chestnuts in the old country. We’d press down into our roots, and feel proud.
Here, in Italy, we’ll start to see the roasted chestnut vendors towards the end of the month, when the clock takes us an hour earlier into twilight, and the women start filling the cemeteries with chrysanthemums to celebrate All Souls. The Alpini might set up a grill outside a busy supermarket to raise money for a local cause. Certainly, as fairy lights start twinkling and the Christmas markets open, the smell of roasted chestnuts, mingled with thick chocolate and blood-warm vin brule, will ease itself into the atmosphere and be inhaled.
Tonight, our chesnuts will be less evocative, but no less satisfying. We’ll boil them up in a pot for half an hour, and then slit them open with a sharp knife. The General has his way of turning the halves inside out by pressing them against his teeth. I prefer to scoop out the flesh with a teaspoon. We’ll eat them after dinner, and we’ll eat them plain. No sugar, no salt. No wine.
And, just as when we were growing up in different continents, we’ll stuff ourselves and tell stories about our people, feeling gratitude, and feeling grounded.
We’ll be using chestnuts a lot in the next few months, so I’ll keep you posted as to how we’re preparing, cooking and baking them. In the meantime, I would LOVE to know if you and your family have any favorite chestnut recipes tucked away in a kitchen drawer. Do share! It’s such an amazing ingredient, the way it lends itself to both sweet and savoury, and I’m really curious to know how people use them. Looking forward to your comments, thanks for reading, and thanks for sharing the Paleomantic love on your Social.