Fresh chestnuts are a spiky challenge in our grab-and-go society. We want instant gratification; they shame us into slowing down.
In their natural state, the nuts' prickly shells look dazzling but are tricky to handle. Chefs love them for decorating their restaurants.
If you're pressed for time, chestnuts are also available on the Market cooked and vac packed or in tins of sweetened chestnut puree.
- Edible or 'sweet' chestnuts were first brought to Europe by The Ancient Greeks. This tree is Castanea sativa. There are also 'Japanese', 'Chinese' and 'American' chestnut species.
- Chestnut trees grow in temperate zones around the world and have been an important foodstuff for millenia. According to The Oxford Companion to Food, the original polenta was made with chestnut flour.
- Chestnuts are gluten-free. For this reason, you cannot bake risen breads exclusively with chestnut flour.
- The nuts are also rich in fibre, potassium, vitamin C and folates. Chestnuts contain less fat than most other nuts.
- The season for chestnuts stretches from September to January.
Growing and harvesting
Once the nuts fall from the tree, harvesting is sometimes done with nets and large vacuums.
However it's still common to see them gathered by hand.
The nuts are often soaked in water in harvest as the 'bad' nuts float to the top.
They are then graded and sold, with smaller nuts used in food manufacturing and processing.
You will also find cooked and vacuum-packed chestnuts (ideal for quick stuffings) and even tinned chestnut puree.
Chestnuts can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes. At time of writing, here are some dishes from chefs in London:
- Pork braised shoulder, rosemary and chestnut stuffing, Hispi cabbage at Mere in Fitzrovia.
- Celeriac and artichoke soup, roasted chestnuts and truffle cream at Blue Boar in Westminster.
- Pumpkin soup with mascarpone, almonds and chestnuts or braised venison tortelli with chestnuts, sage and parmesan at Margot on Great Queen Street.
- Autumn minestrone with cobnut pesto and chestnut and pear croustades at Elystan Street in Chelsea.
- Wild mushroom and chestnut wellington, hay baked parsnip, Savoy cabbage and mushroom jus at Aviary in Finsbury Square.
In pasta dishes, chestnut puree is sometimes used to add richness to a dish and can be spread on the the plate or bowl before adding the pasta. This is radicchio ravioli with chestnut cream from Flavor of Italy.
Here are caramelised chestnuts in a dish of deer with parsnip cream, chicory and saffron apple from Restaurant Paradoxon via Heimo Jessenko.
In patisserie, a classic dish is the Mont Blanc, a pudding of puréed chestnuts that is sweetened then topped with whipped cream.
Below is a stunning riff on this dish from pastry chef Steven Tran from Four Seasons. This "Mont Blanc" is his new version of our Baked Alaska with chestnut rum ice cream, black currant sorbet and candied chestnut pieces.
Castagnaccio is a classic chestnut flour cake in Italy. Below is 'L'entremets mont blanc', a dish by Seddar Azzedine via the Pastry Chef Page.
This is a pear, chestnut and olive oil cake from Safia Shakarchi.