My grandmother Ginny’s signature dish was quail braised with chestnuts, served on polenta or grits. She was Louisianan and had emigrated to Italy, and I suppose the dish — game, cornmeal and the humble chestnut — epitomised cucina povera (peasant food) in both her homes. It was delicious, and I cook it often in her memory.
The chestnut has long been a subsistence food for Europeans, Asians and Native Americans. In hilly regions of Italy, France, Spain and Portugal these uniquely starchy tree nuts were so ubiquitous on the winter table (for at least 4,000 years) that even today many who cook with them still have mixed feelings about them. As with offal in postwar Britain, it’s an aide-mémoire recalling hard times. But to so many others, chestnuts are a symbol of autumn harvests and a festive delight — like mulled wine or glowing embers.
‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ — to both Nat King Cole and the rest of us — are Christmas, but chestnuts are also a surprisingly versatile ingredient. Like vegetables, they can be boiled, roasted, braised or mashed. They make their way into stuffing, roulades, sautés, stews and tray-bakes. They can be puréed into mousses, tortes and desserts; dried and milled into flour for polenta, bread and pasta (both doughs and sauces); or, candied, can be added to ice cream or used to create the ultimate after-dinner treat, the marron glacé.
How to use them
As a side
Boil peeled chestnuts, or braise them in chicken stock, then douse them in fine olive oil or melted butter. Maybe add a little bacon or some mountain herbs like sage, rosemary or thyme — then serve it all hot as a side.
Add them to stews of chicken, guinea fowl, pheasant, pork, veal or game, just like my gran used to. But do so only in the final 20 minutes of cooking, once the juices have mostly reduced, to soak up the gravy.
Use chestnut flour when preparing autumnal pastas, crêpes or gnocchi (delicious with mushroom or bacon sauces). You can also use it to bake sweet chestnut cake, tortes and castagnaccio (add dried fruits, nuts or chocolate for a more lavish experience).
As a purée
My father often mixes chestnut purée with cocoa, sugar and rum to a stiff paste, forces it through a ricer and lavishes it with whipped cream (and sometimes stewed fruits). He’s Hungarian and lived a while in Italy. In Hungary, this dish is called gesztenyepüré, and in Italy, montebianco.
Marron glacés are a delicacy. Fine examples cost a pretty penny and are totally worth it — they have a unique texture and delicate taste. For the sweet-toothed, chestnuts can also be milled to a sweet paste, which makes the finest gelato I know.
Published in Issue 3 of National Geographic Traveller Food.