That old chestnut!
There’s something delightfully nostalgic about roasting chestnuts (peeling them is another matter) but if you want to give it a go, there’s little time to waste. Chestnut season in New Zealand is short: it runs from March until May. You can buy chestnuts through some supermarkets, specialty stores and greengrocers and, because there are more chestnut trees out there than you realise, you may also be able to find some at farm gates, pick-your-own orchards or at your local farmers market.
Although grown right throughout the country, most productive chestnut orchards are in the Auckland, Waikato and Bay of Plenty areas. David Klinac of the New Zealand Chestnut Council says there are plenty of chestnuts down south and many Aucklanders make harvesting day trips to the Waikato to get them.
Highly perishable, chestnuts are 50 per cent water. Unless they are to be eaten soon after harvest, they should be refrigerated or frozen to prevent them drying out. They are high in vitamin C and potassium and contain protein but no fat or oil. Chestnuts grow well in New Zealand and we are not plagued with diseases or pests common overseas. That’s good news for all of us: most trees here are never sprayed.
You may also be able to buy local chestnut processed products but these are made only on a small scale, often by individual growers (for details visit the NZ Chestnut Council on nzcc.org.nz). Country Treats in Levin sells its own freeze-dried crumbs and flour. It’s great for breads, baking, in gravies and soups. Visit country-treats.co.nz. Elsewhere, you can buy frozen chestnuts from Asian food stores and imported European purees from specialty stores.
A word of warning: Do not confuse chestnut flour with water chestnut flour that is imported from India. Water chestnuts are from another plant altogether.
In New Zealand we grow a different variety of chestnut to that grown in Europe. So while the flavour and texture is the same, our nuts are trickier to peel. The Chestnut Council comes to the rescue, selling Japanese chestnut peelers, pictured above $50, that take the angst out of the job.
When buying, look for plump nuts and shiny shells without any bruising. Be aware, too, that edible chestnuts are not the same thing as inedible horse chestnuts. The edible ones have a pointed top, the horse chestnut has a flattened smooth top.
Chestnuts should be cooked before they are eaten. They can be microwaved, boiled or roasted but unless you want a violent explosion, you do need to pierce the shell first. Simply cut an X into the flat side of the shell before cooking. Boiling them whole in water will take about 30 minutes. Cut them in half when they are cool enough to handle and scoop out the flesh. To roast them, cut your X, soak the chestnuts in a bowl of water for 15 minutes and then, X-side up, roast in a 200C oven for 15 minutes. Peel, salt and enjoy!
Roasting aside, as the weather cools, it's the perfect excuse, if ever one was needed, to make a potful of silky pumpkin and chestnut soup. Or buy them pureed, and sometimes sweetened, from specialty food stores and make Geoff Scott's Dark chocolate and chestnut cream roll or Angela Casley's Chestnut and chocolate cake.