As Nat King Cole would testify, chestnuts are synonymous with winter gatherings around an open fire, so with 10 cm of snow piled up outside my window (it’s late March for God’s sake!)…
British autumns may be synonymous with the fruit of the horse chestnut, but the rest of Europe attention is much more interested by its distant relative, the sweet chestnut. This originated in Asia, but was brought to Europe by the Greeks. The Romans first planted it here and although it does best in the south east, the tree is relatively widespread, thanks in large part to coppicing well and producing straight-grained, durable, timber.
The nuts are a rich source of nutrients, so much so that in many areas – particularly Sardinia and Sicily – they are dried and used as a sweet flour. In this country they are generally associated with Christmas where their rich, creamy, flavour works brilliantly mixed with steamed sprouts or in an unusual turkey stuffing. It is a pity to confine them to just one festival, however and for an unusual twist try them in a stir fry with pork belly chunks and soy sauce.
To skin them, boil for half an hour, after which the tough skins and hairy inner layer peel off easily. That said, it is difficult to think of a greater way to enjoy these rich fruits than roasted in the embers of a fire – although slit the skins first to avoid adding an explosive element to the romantic mood.