Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, when Jack Frost visits are rare, and an open fire a luxury for the lucky few? A delicious ritual when you have time, but what a limitation for this noblest of nuts.
The chestnut is the progeny of a statuesque English tree notable for its deeply incised spiralling bark and elegant spear shaped leaves. The multiple fruits are wrapped in a super-spiky green jacket, splitting to reveal a glimmer of brown nut. The name is a gift to other browns: chestnut mare, a mane of chestnut hair.
Chestnuts are much less fatty than other nuts, with good vitamin C, no gluten and a meaty texture. Such qualities are perfectly celebrated in a chestnut and chorizo soup from Sam and Sam at Moro. This soup speaks less of an English glade than the high grasslands of Spain, reminding us the alternative name of Castanea sativa is the Spanish chestnut. If you are new to this soup I suggest you make it without delay, if you know it already then rediscover immediately, the rich nuttiness is layered with warm saffron, cumin, smoky chorizo and thyme and accented with a little garlic and chilli.
Vacuum packs of ready cooked chestnuts are great to add to the store cupboard. They’re easy to haul out when you need to autumn-up a salad or some roast veg. Soften and brown the nuts in salted butter and a little maple syrup for these purposes, add black pepper and the tiniest drops of cider vinegar then use with russet chicory and pear or with roasted vegetables. Their flavour combines really well with bacon and all members of the cabbage family – char some lengths of sprouting broccoli or Cavalo Nero and dust with a bacon and chestnut rubble, made by blitzing together crispy bacon and pan-fried chestnuts. The classic recipe of Brussels sprouts, browned shallots and chestnuts was a winter staple in my 70’s hippy days, and it’s still delicious.
The taste of chestnuts also is gorgeous with sweetness. Use chestnut flour in chocolate brownies or chocolate cake. It will add depth and fragility. I plan to try some roasted with maple syrup and butter and muddled through a rich plain ice cream, or, now I think of it, to even make a muddy grey chestnut ice cream based on the richest of cream custard.
The need for a one-pan breakfast when our house was being torn apart at the seams brought these tender, nutty and flavoursome pancakes into the world. I was cooking in a utility room on a camping stove. We had no heating all winter and noticed we changed to eating more and more warming food and switched to wearing nothing but tweed and thick jumpers - an alternative to calorie-control anyone?
Expect the finished pancake to have a textured, grainy finish, as chestnuts lack the gluten of wheat flour. Maple syrup and hazelnut oil add to the woodsy flavour. Try to find the best proper maple syrup, because it does make a difference. Real maple syrup is tapped from trees and the watery sap reduced to a fraction of its original volume. Helpfully, Canada and the US have now standardised their grading system, which is first by level and then by colour. If you love a nerdy exploration there are further distinctions based on farm, first tap or second and so on. In the picture I have buttered the pancakes and served with a dribble of maple syrup and toasted hazelnuts. Bacon is good on the side for those that eat it and any sort of jam, honey or marmalade for breakfast spreading.
200g chestnut flour
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
pinch sea salt
2 tablespoon maple syrup
225 ml milk
Makes 10-12 pancakes
Put the dry ingredients in a basin and make a well in the centre. Break the egg and add the maple syrup into the centre of the well. Mix thoroughly whilst gradually adding the milk until you’ve made a smooth batter and all the milk is used up. The consistency should be like extra thick cream. Leave the mixture to stand for 15 minutes or so for the flour to swell and soften.
Heat a heavy bottomed pan or skillet. Brush hazelnut oil on the hot surface of the pan. Leave for a moment to warm through. Then using a small ladle or cup, pour the batter into the pan to make 5-6 cm pancakes. Pour as many as will fit, but leaving enough free space to turn without smearing.
Continue to cook over a medium heat until bubbles appear on the surface and the underside is golden brown. Use a metal slice or spatula to loosen and then turn them over with a quick flip and cook on the other side.
When cooked, lift them out of the pan and tuck them in amongst a clean folded tea towel to keep warm whilst you cook the rest of the pancakes.
Words by Jessica Seaton
Join TOAST founder Jessica Seaton on Friday 1st December at TOAST Llandeilo as she discusses her new book, Gather Cook Feast, and her deep connection to the landscape that inspired it. We will be serving Jessica’s very own chestnut pancakes. Please drop in between 10am and 12pm.
Personally signed copies of Jessica Seaton’s new book, Gather Cook Feast are available to buy online and in stores.