It is chestnut season.
I have childhood memories of roasting chestnuts on the fire, for I had a Dunedin childhood and an English mother. It was a seasonal treat, handling burning hot chestnuts to peel off the outer skin (usually burnt on one side) and then dipping them in butter and sprinkling with salt. As she bought the nuts at the fruiterer, it was always a bit of a lucky dip as to whether the one you had was going bad or not. These nuts have a short shelf life.
Mark too has childhood memories of gathering chestnuts from a neighbour’s tree but he recalls boiling them and then carrying them in his pocket as snack food. There was nothing, he says, like reaching into your pocket after school and finding a few chestnuts you had forgotten about.
This year we have been given free access to a couple of trees nearby and there are nuts in abundance. I realised that the difference in our childhood memories is that Dunedin has a colder climate so the chestnut season coincides with the lighting of winter fires. Here in the milder north, we have not yet started winter fires, which is probably why Mark had only tried boiled chestnuts when I met him. These nuts we are gathering are large and very fresh – no nasty surprises with the flesh going off. The trees will be named selections and the ease of handling larger nuts has convinced us that if you are going to plant a tree, it is worth paying the extra to get one which has been selected for its larger nuts.
We ate a dish in China recently of meatballs and chestnuts in a casserole and this inspired us to harvest more to freeze and eat later. Chestnuts are not the easiest crop to prepare. We have taken to parboiling them which means the hard outer casing can be peeled off (we cut the top point and then insert a sharp vegetable knife to lever off the casing) but the inner brown covering is not so easy to get rid of. Parboiling means the kernel holds its shape and we are freezing them at this stage. Gently frying or roasting them in a mixture of butter and oil and then adding a sprinkling of salt makes them delicious. I put some in a tagine over the weekend but the long slow cooking broke down the kernels. To keep the texture and shape, I will add them in the last 15 minutes of cooking in the future.
We had thought they would offer an additional source of protein in our diet, but I see online that they are basically all carbohydrate with very little protein or fat so really they are a taste and textural addition.
The edible chestnut grown here is the European tree – Castanea sativa. It is not to be confused (but still is by some folk) with the horse chestnut which is an aesculus. There is a similarity in appearance of the nuts but that is all. Horse chestnuts are inedible and moderately toxic though, in another memory dredged from my childhood, they are used in the game of conkers which we used to play. With a hole drilled through the centre and then suspended on a short string, they became a weapon to assault a similar conker held stationary by the adversary. The winner was the one whose conker did not split. My brother always won, as I recall.
The horse chestnut is a very decorative tree. We have the smaller growing Aesculus x carnea in our park and it is particularly pretty in flower with its red plumes. Water chestnuts (Eleocharis dulcis) are different again, being a grassy reed or sedge, traditionally grown in water. They are not a nut because what are eaten are the nodules on the roots. Apparently it is in New Zealand and Mark has a yen to try growing them when we track down a plant.