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December 23, 2005

Philippa Davenport on Chestnuts


Davenport writes about food for the Financial Times.

Her column last weekend was an evocative meandering through her past, with stops at junctures of time and personal history to reflect on the role chestnuts played in some of her most cherished memories.

Here's the piece.

    Street Treat to Erase Your Fingerprints

    The scent of chestnuts roasting on a street corner brazier is inextricably linked to Christmas in London for me.

    Chestnuts start falling from the trees long before Advent, of course.

    I remember gathering them in the grounds of my boarding school.

    The nuns scored and roasted them in the oven and we ate them joyously at mid-morning break.

    The break was taken outdoors, wearing gloves and coats, with much stamping of feet to keep toes warm on frosty days.

    There was a government-issue, small bottle of milk per child daily and whatever the nuns could muster for us to eat: usually bread and hedgerow jam, no butter.

    Chestnut days were special and, if we were really lucky, there might be bits of bread and dripping as well - proper dripping, rich in fat, speckled with crusty bits and meaty glaze scraped from the bottom of the roasting pan.

    This was a heavenly, hefty snack guaranteed to raise spirits and send sagging energies soaring.


    Chestnuts bought from vendors with charcoal braziers in Oxford Street, Regent Street, Piccadilly and elsewhere were even more exciting than school chestnuts.

    We were in holiday mood then and stopping to buy smoking hot, brown paper bags of freshly roasted chestnuts was part of the ritual treat of an outing to Hamley's toyshop or a Christmas pantomime.

    Other children may have derived as much pleasure from other foods but chestnuts were the only street food middle class children were allowed, apart from the occasional ice-cream in summer. Jellied eels were deemed cockney fare.

    Lurid pink plumes of candyfloss were dismissed as the dentist's friend.

    We ate our handful of partially charred, satisfyingly mealy chestnuts there in the street, turning our backs to the comforting heat of the brazier, peering into brightly lit shop windows or listening to carol singers.

    Trying to eat the kernels only, not bits of shell or any bitter tasting skin, was a greedy struggle.

    Chestnuts are tricky to peel and the membrane clings tenaciously to the flesh, particularly in the crevices of multi-fruited châtaignes.

    Marrons (the fatter, smoother sort of chestnut used to make marrons glacés) are not so troublesome.

    Then there was the danger of burning fingers or tongue, or both.

    For years I worried that the curiously desiccating roughness of chestnut casings would erase the prints on the pads of my forefingers and thumbs, and so deny me my identity.

    A young lad I confided in thrilled to the idea and boasted that he would peel tons of hot roast chestnuts to be certain of losing his fingerprints before raiding the Bank of England so the police would never be able to catch him and prove him guilty.


    Back at home, chestnuts featured in many meals at Christmas.

    Personally, I don't care much whether or not the turkey is stuffed.

    What matters is that the bird is chaperoned by piles of bacon rolls, mixed with chipolatas containing not less than 98 per cent meat, and plenty of chestnuts, freshly roasted and carefully peeled, tender all through and blessed with a few savoury scorches.

    Chestnuts contribute greatly to soups.

    Think of velvety cream of celery soup finished with snippets of grilled streaky bacon and crumbs of roast chestnut.

    Think of crystal clear hare consommé laced with forcemeat balls, roast chestnuts, fried apple and a curl of lemon peel.

    Many people love chestnut puddings best.

    Chestnut ice cream can be good.

    Turinois is child's play to make because it works so well using canned chestnut purée.

    Mont Blanc is queen of them all and a great labour of love.

    The chestnuts must be boiled until so tender that a finger and thumb will crush them, stripped of all shell and skin, sieved with a little milk infused with a spoonful of sugar and the seeds scraped from a vanilla pod, beaten, then sieved again, this time letting the mixture fall in soft pyramid mounds on to a plate - the lightest, fluffiest chestnut purée imaginable, crowned just before serving with snowy dollops of barely whipped cream.


    Call it cheating if you like but I reckon the most civilised and convivial dessert involves no cooking - a tray of sweetmeats served by the fireside.

    Let there be a porcelain jar of stem ginger in syrup, with forks for spearing the chunks, to dip in crème frâiche or savour with best bitter chocolate.

    Let there be sharp-sweet Elvas plums, the traditional candied greengages of Portugal.

    Let there be miniature bunches of fat semi-dried Malaga raisins on the stalk to nibble as they are, or soften briefly in sweet muscatel wine before eating.

    And let there be chestnuts, both preserved and fresh.

    Dark, sticky, foil-wrapped marrons glacés, and chestnuts to roast in the embers - or on the bars of the firebasket as lovelorn Victorian girls did when seeking predictions about the ardour of their swains.

    Line up chestnuts on the bars and give them the names of young men you know, then wait for the fire to perform its magic.

    If a chestnut rolls into the fire, you lose the man to a rival.

    If a chestnut explodes, the young man he represents won't be much good to you.

    If a nut leaps off the grate into the room, there is hope.


    And if it lands in your lap, he is yours.

December 23, 2005 at 10:01 AM | Permalink


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last year I bought a bag of chestnuts in front of the British Museum and ate them with my girlfreind on the way to Trafalgar Square. Dreamy. Same a few weeks later in front of the Louvre on way to Grand Palais...for me its the smell and the warmth more than the taste...I made some at home a few months ago...remarkably easy...just cut a cross shaped pair of slits in the flat side with a sharp knife, toss on a flat pan and bake at 350-400 until they pop open and smell good...highly recomended for in-home holiday aroma if you can find some...

Posted by: sb | Dec 23, 2005 12:17:31 PM

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