A new way to roast chestnuts and get them out of their shells whole - suitable for marrons glacés

The most famous area in France for chestnuts is the Ardèche but in fact here in rural Normandie sweet chestnut trees border many fields and road sides. In our village in October everyone is out foraging for this wonderful and versatile food. In the past I have used them in savoury pies, sweet puddings, vegetable dishes, stuffing and even made chestnut purée but this year I want to have a try for that Holy Grail of chestnut preparations -  marrons glacés.

peeled sweet chestnuts

To do this I need whole chestnuts not the halves and crumbly bits you can easily hide under buttered sprouts or pretend were an intentional part of the rustic looking pâté en croûte or sausage meat farce. 

We do not have sweet chestnut trees in our own garden but we have these  which we grew from seed/nuts.

Bumble bee and horse chestnut flower
They produce the fruits below, which are known as conkers or horse chestnuts and are not good to eat but used for playing an old English game and from which you can make a treatment for varicose veins. We got the originals from the Abbey of Hailes in Gloucestershire, founded in 1246 by Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall. He had made a vow to build if he was spared from death, whilst shipwrecked and awaiting rescue in the English Channel. Having been out there many times and once in a force ten I empathise with him completely. We felt it particularly incumbent on us to save these sprouting, embryonic offspring of the originals from the mower's blade and transport them back across La Manche, as it's called on our side of the water.
 Conkers the fruit of the Horse Chestnut

Above The rotund conkers aka the fruits of Aesculus hippocastanum the Horse Chestnut 
Below The rather triangular, tassled and eminently edible, as its name suggests, Castanea sativa

Sweet Chestnuts
However, if you are out foraging, then the immediate and easy difference you will notice is in the outer casing, which in the horse chestnut is lime green, slightly knobbly and spiny. In the sweet chestnut this protective husk is brown and incredibly prickly, somewhat resembling an angry hedgehog or porcupine and just as painful if you try to pick it up.

Getting whole peeled chestnuts without losing flavour and nutrients

The problem for us has always been to find the best method for preparing the chestnuts prior to cooking, so as to be able to easily peel them from their shell once they come out of the oven.

Chestnuts roasting
Past experience has been disappointing, with much of the contents sticking to the shell, the shell not opening enough for easy nut extraction or the nut just breaking up into ‘shrapnel’. A term Andy adopted when he once, many years ago, microwaved chestnuts and failed to make an adequate incision in some of the shells. Last year whilst trying to get to the nut and shoving a hot piece of shell under his fingernail, he realised that we should be letting natural forces do the work for us.

Steam Power

When you cook a chestnut the heated kernel gives off steam and it is the steam that will cause the uncut shell to ‘pop’ and distribute its contents wherever. Andy realised the steam should do the work of starting to lift the shell off so he cut the shell with a circumferential incision all around the base of the nut (the base being the flattest face of the nut.). 

chestnuts cooked
When the chestnuts are then placed on the baking sheet base side down and cooked, the steam on its route out of the shell loosens the kernel from the shell thus making it easier to extract whole cooked chestnuts. The chestnuts are cooked in the oven for 30 minutes in total and at a temperature of 200°C or 400°F.

In the Kitchen

Initially, he made the cut with a small kitchen knife held very close to the tip, which was OK but not exactly the best-suited tool for the job. So, knowing that one only needed the tip of the blade to cut through  the shell, he pushed the blade of a craft knife through an old wine bottle cork so that the tip of the blade protruded by about 2mm. The tip could then be pushed through the shell and with the nut pressed against the face of the cork, the blade could make the incision with ease.

cork and blade for scoring chestnuts
cutting around sking of chestnut 
The cutting operation does take a little longer to undertake but the extraction of the cooked nut is much faster and less painful. Plus, with only the blade tip exposed, the cutting of the shell is less hazardous than it would be using an ordinary kitchen knife, regardless of how the shell is pierced.

how to extract whole chestnuts

Using this technique we estimate we were able to extract about 80% of the chestnuts whole, the rest came out as pieces, this is a great improvement on previous years, plus neither of us got painful bits of the shell under our fingernails!

steaming to remove final skin of chestnuts
Invariably not all of the thin and slightly bitter skin is removed but this can be done by steaming the shelled chestnuts for 5 minutes. Only steam a few chestnuts at a time, we found the skin to be quite gluey, so if you have too many chestnuts to deal with at once, the skin can dry out and stick even harder to the chestnut!

And now, if you'd like to, sit back and watch the film.

All the very best, 'til next time and another recipe from an old farm house in  Normandie.

Compliments of the Season!


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© 2014 Sue Cross   

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