Like buttered crumpets and sloe gin, the chestnut is a major compensation for the short, murky days and chilly nights of late autumn. "I'm very keen on them," says Jeremy Lee, head chef at London's Blue Print Café. "They add a very distinct taste and crunchy texture. You can eat them in all sorts of ways from peasant stews to glamorous marrons glacés. I totally love them, but they are a difficult nut. If not perfect, they can be mealy and dry and deeply unpleasant."
Occasionally, you can still catch the tempting, smoky whiff of the hot chestnut man's brazier in city streets, though at £2 for a tiny bag of red-hot kernels, this is a luxury snack. They need not be this expensive. At the sprawling open-air market (Wednesdays and Saturdays) in Asti, northern Italy, I recently bought a large plastic carrier of chestnuts for 3 euros. It was hard to stop the stallholder shovelling them in with her large scoop. "Basta!" I yelled, but she didn't seem to understand my Italian for "Enough!"
Unrelated to the inedible horse chestnut or conker, the homely sweet chestnut tree is actually an exotic import. A native of Asia Minor, the tree made its way across Europe by human means (the seeds are too heavy to travel far) and arrived in Britain around 200BC. We are at the northernmost limit of the tree's range. In his Cook's Encyclopaedia, Tom Stobart sternly warns of the homegrown chestnut: "The crop is uncertain and quality nuts are not produced." Most chestnuts sold in this country come from Italy, Spain and France. Covering 800,000 hectares, the chestnut forests of the Italian Apennines comprise several hundred different varieties produced by grafting. They produce chestnuts of variable sizes, flavours and sweetness, though Stobart insists, "The consideration of greatest practical importance is whether or not the chestnuts are easy to peel."
You can get ready-cooked vacuum-packed kernels, though there is nothing to beat fresh chestnuts during their brief season (October-December). My Piedmontese chestnuts were in tip-top nick – large and shiny. For a modest €4, I also acquired a chestnut pan (UK kitchen shops and websites have them from £5) like a deep, long-handled frying pan with lots of large holes in the bottom, which performs the same task over a kitchen hob as the hot chestnut man's brazier.
I even bought a special chestnut knife with a short, curved blade. Sadly, I'd forgotten that airport security does not make exceptions for innocent culinary implements so I've had to make do with an ordinary paring knife when preparing chestnuts for roasting. Opinions vary about the location of the incision that prevents explosion. Some say you should cut round the circular part of the nut, others say cut across the flat side, but I follow the advice of Larousse Gastronomique: "Cut a circular incision around the chestnuts, through the husk and the inner skin."
It takes about 20-25 minutes to cook the nuts over a medium-hot flame or you can bake in a high-sided tray at 230°C. Either way, you have to shake the container every few minutes to ensure even cooking. Your kitchen fills with delicious-smelling smoke. By the end, the chestnut's mahogany-coloured outer jacket should have blackened. Then comes the daunting task of peeling. If you are lucky, many of the kernels will have shed both their outer jacket and fibrous inner skin during roasting, but some will require tackling by hand. This is a job for the brave since it has to be done while the nuts are still warm. Watch out for mould, which can infiltrate even the best nuts. When peeling and inspection is completed, you have one of autumn's great treats. Mottled with black, the kernel is deliciously sweet and slightly crunchy.
Roast chestnuts are usually sprinkled with sea-salt and pepper, though a dip of honey and black pepper is an alternative for the sweet-toothed. In the 17th century, John Evelyn suggested lemon juice and sugar. Chestnuts are traditionally accompanied by the new wines like Beaujolais Nouveau that appear at the same time, but in her Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley includes the robust preference of Apennine peasants: douse the hot nuts in grappa. The effect is startling, a sort of electric soup.
Oddly, the English tradition is to put uncut chestnuts near the fire so they explode. An ancient game involved girls scratching names into chestnuts. "The first 'name' to pop was the first lover to pop the question," explained food historian Dorothy Hartley. "If he jumped into your lap, you had him; if he popped into the fire and was burnt up ... well, you didn't." Evelyn complained about the curious English attitude to chestnuts. "We give the fruit to our swine in England, which is amongst the delicacies of princes in other countries."
This versatile nut can enhance dishes from soup to puds. You prepare chestnuts for cooking by simmering for 10-15 minutes and peeling, though good quality vacuum-packed kernels are generally regarded as best for cooking purposes. In her book On Chestnuts, Ria Loohuizen recommends the dried version: "They have the disadvantage of having to soak overnight, but come closest to the fresh nuts in consistency as well as flavour."
At this time of year, Jeremy Lee uses chestnuts in one of the most delicious autumnal soups imaginable. "To feed six, roast 500g plump tomatoes and purée. Boil 750g Jerusalem artichokes and smash into small pieces. Fry up 100g chopped streaky bacon with a little olive oil in a big pan. Add the puréed tomatoes and smashed artichokes together with 400g prepared cannelloni beans (two tins would work well). Finally, add a tiny amount of cayenne pepper, just a devil's wink, and tumble in 200g chestnut bits. I use vacuum-packed chestnuts from Spain. Add just enough water or stock to cover and cook together over a very gentle heat for half an hour. It's a very mischievous soup – it will burn if you don't watch it. Finally, a healthy sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan and a drizzle of good, fruity olive oil."
Lee is not alone in his passion for the big nut. In her comprehensive work Delia's Happy Christmas, Delia Smith includes a dozen chestnut recipes ranging from braised venison with bacon, chestnuts and wild mushrooms to iced chocolate chestnut torte. Some people add chestnuts when sautéing Brussels spouts. Chestnut stuffing is a classic of very long standing. The early Italian food writer Giacomo Castelvetro (1546-1616) suggested: "Peeled chestnuts are used with prunes, raisons and breadcrumbs in a stuffing for roast chicken, goose or turkey." It can, however, be on the dry side so it's best eaten with plenty of good gravy.
Traditionally a food for the poor, ground chestnuts were used in Italy to make polenta before maize crossed the Atlantic. By the 19th century, this tasty and nutritious item was spurned by the wealthy in Italy, which explains why it was the French who developed marrons glacés (candied chestnuts made from the largest nuts). This luxurious confection has a very singular, hard-to-define taste. Nutty and gelatinous, it conveys a hint of the earth in which the chestnut grew. The French company Clément Faugier, based in the Ardèche where chestnuts have been granted an appellation controlée, sells a paste made from chestnuts that don't quite match the demands of marrons glacés. Available in both sweetened and unsweetened versions, this delicious goo is sold in perhaps the most beautiful tins in all gastronomy. It can be used in a host of recipes. The best known is Mont Blanc: a pile of whipped cream, usually flavoured with liqueur, teeters on a splodge of sweetened chestnut purée in imitation of the great peak.
A more elaborate chestnut dessert emerged from Austria. Named after a Russian diplomat in the 19th century, Nesselrode pie is an elaborate combination, served either hot or frozen, of chestnut purée, custard and candied fruit. Though it has now fallen from favour, perhaps for obvious reasons, the stodgy ice-cream version was once highly popular in the US. In Woody Allen's delirious Twenties comedy Bullets Over Broadway, a compulsive eater played by Jim Broadbent orders Nesselrode pie to conclude a restaurant blow-out.
But most of us would prefer to start with chestnuts straight from the fire. So addictive is this seasonal treat that I polished off my entire carrier bag of Asti nuts and dashed to the greengrocer for fresh supplies. At £1.79 per pound, they are the quintessence of autumn and winter.
Winter warmers: Chestnut recipes
Chestnut and onion stuffing
In a bowl, mix 2 cloves minced garlic and fine-chopped leaves from a small bunch of leaf parsley. Stir in 100g of rough-chopped cooked and peeled chestnuts. Combine this with 2 finely-chopped rashers of smoked streaky bacon and 300g minced belly pork. Peel and fine chop 2 onions and fry in 50g unsalted butter until soft. Allow to cool before adding to bowl with 3tbsp brandy, tsp salt and ¼tsp fresh ground pepper. Mix thoroughly and chill until needed. Cook in a small greased baking dish at 180°C until set (35 minutes).
Adapted from Game: A Cookbook by Trish Hilferty and Tom Norrington-Davies (Absolute, £25).
Curly kale with bacon and chestnuts
Wash, de-stalk and boil 900g kale for 10 minutes or until tender. Chop 250g streaky bacon into lardoons and fry in a little olive oil until tender. Add 200g cooked chopped chestnuts and fry for another minute. Add bacon and chestnuts to drained kale and add generous knob of butter. Stir and add ground black pepper.
Adapted from Forgotten Skills of Cooking by Darina Allen (Kyle Cathie, £30). This dish goes particularly well with game.
Boil and skin 1kg fresh chestnuts or briefly simmer vacuum-packed chestnuts. Purée in a food processor. Add 25g butter and 3 drops of vanilla essence while it is still warm and mix again. Whisk 2 eggs with 175g sugar and stir into purée. Transfer to a buttered cake tin and bake at 180°C for 30 minutes. If a skewer emerges clean from the cake, it is cooked. Leave to cool thoroughly on a plate before serving with crème fraîche.
Adapted from European Festival Food by Elisabeth Luard (Grub Street, £20). This was traditionally served at the festival meal during the Ardèche chestnut harvest.