I have never been more perplexed by an ingredient than I have been by chestnuts. It began last year, on a visit to Kookootonga Farm in Mt Irvine with some international guests.
I wanted them to experience a pick-your-own farm. Perhaps I should say ‘glean your own’ because you really don’t pick chestnuts from the tree. They fall to the ground from their prickly husk and you collect them from there.
I came home from that farm trip with a huge bag of chestnuts but no prior experience in cooking them. So I didn’t really know what to do with my haul. Using the Christmas song as my guide (sing it with me: ‘Chestnuts roasting on an open fire’), I threw them into a warm oven with a little olive oil and left them to cook as my family and I ate dinner.
Halfway through our meal I heard what sounded like someone outside our back door slamming down bin lids. Not just once; they kept slamming the bin lids. It was weird, I thought.
I was starting to curse my neighbours when I realised the banging wasn’t actually coming from the back door. It was coming from my kitchen. Yep, the chestnuts were exploding in my oven.
X marks the spot
See, when the recipe says (as it usually will) that you should score chestnuts with a little cross before roasting them, you really shouldn’t ignore that step. It really does prevent steam build-up (and subsequent explosions).
I felt defeated. I had expected the warm glow of satisfaction after having gleaned and then roasted my own delicacies. Instead, I had to set about cleaning my oven. Worst kitchen job EVER.
It was enough to make me shelve the idea of chestnuts for a whole year!
A new hope…
This year, as chestnut season rolled around, I was determined to seek some expert advice. I turned to my friends at Gourmand Providore who work out of the Sydney Markets at Flemington and asked if they would help me find some good quality chestnuts as well as give me a bit more knowledge around how to cook them.
Julio Azzarello was my guide. March was fairly early in the season, he told me, so there wouldn’t be chestnuts everywhere, but he’d take me to a few wholesalers who would have them.
Chestnuts flourish in an environment that is hot in summer and cool in winter. So most of Australia’s chestnuts are grown in North East Victoria.Julio Azzarello from Gourmand Providore
We had chestnuts firmly in our sights as we walked the markets, but we kept getting distracted by all the other produce. The snake beans! The chillies! The eggplants! The weird veg that I had never seen before! It is, after all, one of the largest fruit and vegetable wholesale markets in the world.
We detoured in both purpose and conversation. It wasn’t until we reached David Phillpot at Fresh Produce Group that we found bags and bags of early season Bouche de Betizac chestnuts. This plump, sweet and easy-peel variety is suitable for any type of cooking.
“But how do you prepare them?” I asked. I figured if the guy sold 30,000kg worth of chestnuts last week, he must have a few tips up his sleeve.
It turns out he barbecues them!
How to cook chestnuts
Julio and I walked on enthusing about all the possibilities for chestnuts in cooking. They can add a creamy, savoury quality to soups, or be roasted alongside your favourite meat. They pair well with chicken, pork and duck, as well as other autumnal flavours like pumpkin and mushrooms.
And like most nuts, they have both sweet and savoury uses. A candied or glacéd chestnut makes a beautiful, decorative topping for a cheesecake, Julio told me.
The important thing to note is that incorporating chestnuts into your cooking is a two-step process.
You prepare the nuts first, either by roasting, grilling or boiling and then you add them into recipes.Julio Azzarello from Gourmand Providore
But I knew that after last year’s disaster, I couldn’t afford to get too ambitious. The safest thing, I decided, was take the whole cooking process outside and use the BBQ.
To my absolute delight, I did manage to find a way to roast the chestnuts over an open fire (almost). The flame gives in a smoky depth that complements the chestnut’s own sweet taste, as well as the chilli and maple syrup in this recipe.