Chestnuts are an ancient crop, recorded across the Mediterranean as far back as 2100 BC. But 3rd century BC documents show the chestnut more valued for timber and charcoal than for its fruits, although the Ancient Greeks believed in its medicinal properties as a remedy for lacerations of the throat and lips. In France and Italy more recently, the chestnut’s leaves are turned into litter for cow byres.
Sweet chestnuts generally contain two and sometimes a flattened third nut, as opposed to the poisonous horse chestnut - the sweet chestnut’s distant cousin more sparsely scattered with stubby prickles, which provides the single shiny conker.
Carbonised sweet chestnuts were unearthed in a Roman villa engulfed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, and for centuries, chestnuts have been ground down along the Italian Ligurian coast for use as flour. Classic Italian trofie, the pasta served with the basil-and-pine nut pesto originating in Genoa, were made with chestnut flour. With the dearth of crops of corn and wheat during the second world war, across south west France, too, chestnuts were ground into flour (albeit one that doesn’t keep well), to make bread. Dense loaves of chestnut bread can still be found in the region, as can crepes made with chestnut flour and served with a chocolate spread.
In 1906, 63 varieties of finely-prickled French sweet chestnuts were registered, called chataignes, a derivation of the old French chastain. Nowadays, there are few different varieties, and only three main growing areas, one of them being the Dordogne/Limousin which grows 30% of the nation’s entire crop and is home to the much venerated Bouche de Betiza and the Marigoule varieties.
The sweet chestnut of the Perigord and the Limousin is distinct for containing only one nut known as a marron and ideal in shape for the production of marrons glaces. And what more perfect a seasonal candy to eat and to give at Christmas.
500g fresh chestnuts
For the syrup: 300g sugar and 300ml water
Score the chestnuts, cover in cold water and cook on a low boil for 8-10 minutes till tender. Drain and peel while warm.
Bring the sugar and water to the boil in a heavy-based pan then simmer for 10 minutes to make a syrup. Add chestnuts and simmer for 7-8 minutes. Remove from heat and leave them overnight in the syrup.
Bring the chestnuts back to the boil in the syrup and cook for 2 minutes. Remove pan from heat and let chestnuts cool overnight in the syrup. Repeat process 3 or more times over the next few days until all the syrup is absorbed.
Preheat the oven to 70°C. Spread the candied chestnuts across a wire rack over a tray covered in foil and place in oven. Prop its door open with a wooden spoon handle and leave 2 hours or until crusty. Remove, cool, and wrap each chestnut in greaseproof paper.
The following recipe makes good use of winter ingredients chestnuts and quince and is delicious with roast pork or any game including a Christmas goose. But for that, double or triple the ingredients depending on the size of the bird.
Quince and chestnuts pot-roasted pheasant
- 3 large stalks celery with leaves
- 1 quince
- 80g butter
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 pheasant
- 12 chestnuts, fresh, roasted and peeled, or from a jar, or frozen
- 6 fresh sage leaves
- 175ml Noilly Prat or white wine
- 175ml good stock
Preheat oven 180C.
Shave celery stalks with a potato peeler, trim their bottoms then cut into 2.5 cm lengths. Peel and core quince and slice in wedges.
Melt half the butter in a heavy-bottomed casserole over medium heat. Season pheasant and brown lightly on all sides. Remove to a warm plate. Use a paper towel to absorb any burned butter, leaving behind the golden caramel.
Melt remaining butter in pan. Add quince, chestnuts, sage, celery and its leaves. Season to taste. Pour over Noilly Prat, scraping the bottom of the pan with a spatula to incorporate the caramel, bring to the boil and bubble 2 minutes, add stock and bring back to boil then return bird and juices to pot. Cover and bake, 35 to 40 minutes.
Remove pan from oven then return uncovered to oven to brown pheasant, 5-10 minutes.
Rest on a warmed platter 15 minutes. Carve away the legs, then each breast in a single piece. Surround the pheasant with the vegetables and juices and serve.
This column written by Julia Watson originally appeared in the December 2019 edition of The Bugle.