Golden delicious: Chestnuts are the ideal cold-weather comfort food

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Roasted in their shells or cooked in sublime soups and puddings - now's the time to enjoy them

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.

Chestnut cake

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.

Sport
Thiago Silva pulls Arjen Robben back to concede a penalty
world cup 2014Brazil 0 Netherlands 3: More misery for hosts as Dutch take third place
Sport
Robin van Persie hands his third-place medal to a supporter
Van Persie gives bronze medal to eccentric fan moments after being handed it by Blatter
News
Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
people
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur
fashion

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
scienceScientists have developed a material so dark you can't see it...
News
Monkey business: Serkis is the king of the non-human character performance
peopleFirst Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Voices
Mrs Brown's Boy: D'Movie has been a huge commercial success
voicesWhen it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Curtain calls: Madani Younis
theatreMadani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Life and Style
Douglas McMaster says the food industry is ‘traumatised’
food + drinkSilo in Brighton will have just six staple dishes on the menu every day, including one meat option, one fish, one vegan, and one 'wild card'
Life and Style
Once a month, waistline watcher Suran steps into a 3D body scanner that maps his body shape and records measurements with pinpoint accuracy
techFrom heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Sport
Mario Balotelli, Divock Origi, Loic Remy, Wilfried Bony and Karim Benzema
transfersBony, Benzema and the other transfer targets
News
Soft power: Matthew Barzun
peopleThe US Ambassador to London, Matthew Barzun, holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence. He says it's all part of the job
Sport
Joe Root and James Anderson celebrate their record-beaking partnership
cricketEngland's last-wicket stand against India rewrites the history books
News
Gavin Maxwell in Sandaig with one of his pet otters
peopleWas the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?
News
Rowsell says: 'Wearing wigs is a way of looking normal. I pick a style and colour and stick to it because I don't want to keep wearing different styles'
peopleThe World Champion cyclist Joanna Rowsell on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?