I felt once more how simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea. Nothing else.Nikos Kazantzakis
There’s a moment every year when I know it’s winter. It may not occur on the Solstice, and in fact often (usually) doesn’t. It is generally crisp, generally late afternoon, with phantom breath and leaves deviling the pavement – although sometimes it’s sodden, grey, inescapably damp, with head-down dashing, impatient for tea, or whisky, or whisky in your tea. It’s a moment where I say, “Ah, yes. There it is…now we can get on with it.” I feel my shoulders un-hunch from the knot I didn’t know they’d coiled into. I accept (embrace is too strong a word) the cold, and even start to enjoy the tightness across my cheeks, the sting in my nostrils. And it’s simple, really: the chestnut vendor appears in front of the carousel.
Sometimes I smell the charcoal before I see his cart, the unmistakable drift of wood ash and embers, redolent with leaves and tar and heated steel, a hint of sulphur, and…I’m tempted to say ‘winter’, but I associate charcoal braziers with hot lands as well – Istanbul and Athens, Djakarta, villages in Kenya where every third street corner boasts a makeshift 50-gallon grill searing corn or satay.
Here, though, it’s a herald of colder days, mingling with notes of toasted vanilla and roasting potatoes. The vendor’s bundled up, aproned, hands always bare over the radiant heat of the grill, calloused, a bit of grime from handling charbon de bois and newsprint…
“Marrons! Marrons chaudes!”
Red and white striped umbrella, against the sun, against the rain, or just as a beacon to the hurried and hungry. For a few euros he hands over a cornucopia rolled from La Figaro, filled with steaming and scorched goodness. Warm your hands around the cone, inhale deeply, try to hold off long enough that you don’t burn your fingers.
I’d spent early Christmases singing about chestnuts roasting on an open fire without really knowing what that meant. Characters in Dickens always seemed to enjoy them (“There were great, round, pot-bellied baskets of chestnuts, shaped like the waistcoats of jolly old gentlemen, lolling at the doors, and tumbling out into the street in their apoplectic opulence”), but aside from the inedible (i.e. – mildly poisonous) buckeyes/horse chestnuts of my Ohio youth, my first experience of real chestnuts came in Greece.
Hiking cliffside paths between monasteries on the Halkidiki peninsulae, we gathered spikey green fruit along the way, windfall from heavily laden, golden twisting boughs. At the monastery, in the cell we’d been offered for the night, was a wood stove. We shelled our bounty and spilled them onto the hot stove head. Luckily an elderly monk passing our open door noticed and shuffled in, wagging a finger in admonishment.
We thought we were about to be scolded, but no – reaching into the folds of his robe he produced a nicked and weathered penknife, swept up a handful of the dark brown nuts, and proceeded to demonstrate how one had to score the outer casing with a shallow ‘x’ cut. Otherwise, he indicated, “Boom!”, gesticulating grandly around the room to show how they would explode from the expanding steam. When they were ready, edges of the score marks peeling back and blackened lightly from the heat, he showed us how to pop them out and rub off the pellicle, the brown velvety inner sheath.
Ever since I’ve loved chestnuts, not in the least for their definitive seasonality. There are yet a few things in this world (more as I get older, or perhaps just better at noticing) that mark the ebb and flow of equinox and solstice, reliable and assuring.
Apparently we have Alexander the Great, and a few odd Romans to thank for bringing the chestnut (Castanea sativa) to Europe. It had been creeping down from the Anatolian plateau in Asia Minor for several millennia when Alexander hurried it along its way as provender for his troops when he pre-empted Caesar and crossed the Rubicon around 300 BC. It flourished in Italy’s volcanic soil, and hung out for a while, catching some rays and watching the Roman Empire crumble until about the 5th century, when it made its sauntering way into western Europe. On the eastern slopes of Mount Etna in Sicily, just off the Linguaglossa road, you can find the Castagno dei Cento Cavalli, or ‘Hundred Horse Chestnut’, a tree between 2000 and 4000 years old depending on which historian you listen to, and believed to be the largest and oldest chestnut in existence. It measures over 200 feet in circumference, and gets its name from a legend that sometime in the 15th century the Queen of Aragon and a hundred of her knights sought shelter under its branches during a sudden thunderstorm. And perhaps they ate chestnuts.
You can munch Castanea sativa raw, but not many do. They’re kind of bitter and astringent unless you can remove the pellicle, which is a task if they’re not boiled or roasted. And they differ from other nuts in taste, texture, and nutritional composition. For one, they contain only about 2% fat – compared to say peanuts which boast roughly 20%, almonds at around 50%, walnuts at 55%, and a whopping 73% for macadamia. They’re loaded with fiber, minerals like potassium, phosphorous, copper, and manganese, a slew of B vitamins, some E; they’re the only nut to contain vitamin C. They’re sweet, even sweeter when boiled or roasted, but not overly so – not as sweet as a ripe date, say. Texture-wise, instead of being firm and crunchy like other nuts, chestnuts are crumbly-starchy, with a texture that is sort of like a lightly cooked potato. You can eat them whole, or chopped, they can be mashed into a wonderful puree, incorporated into sauces, puddings, pastries, beverages – in Corsica they make their way into beer as the fermentable, and an amazing chestnut-meal polenta. There’s chestnut stuffing for poultry, long-roasted chestnuts as a coffee substitute, chestnut bread.
There’s a seasonal specialty in Southern France and Italy, Marrons Glacés, or candied chestnuts, that involves a few days of boiling and soaking in sugar water and which renders them soft(er), with a consistency a bit like dried apricots, and a sweet and mild nuttiness.
They make their appearance around the 1st of December, and are traditional gifts for les fêtes. They’re the kind of thing that is clichéd and wonderful at the same time, as Proustian as Madeleines, as guilty a pleasure as (fill in your own personal blank), and much better than you remembered.
A lovely and simple ‘recipe’ (less recipe, more a comfortable event shared with friends, or even solo treat on that first day of chestnut weather) that Marcella Hazan offers in “Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking’, is called ‘Chestnuts Boiled in Red Wine’, and that pretty much sums it up – score a score or so of chestnuts that you’ve soaked for 20 minutes in lukewarm water to soften up the skins, drop them in a saucepan with a cup of simmering wine, a few bay leaves, a couple peppercorns, and a pinch of salt (and any spices that strike your fancy – cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg), let them tremble covered for 30 minutes to an hour, remove the lid and let the wine reduce to a dribble. Serve warm, peel and scarf down with any wine left in the bottle.
But really, all you need is a brisk morning and the scent of wood smoke. A simple and frugal thing indeed.
“Marrons! Marrons chaude!”