One of the most widely grown nuts, chestnuts are found on all three continents. Grown throughout New Zealand, most productive chestnut orchards in the country are in Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. 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 mid March until May.
Available from some supermarkets and greengrocers, they can be purchased from orchards and at farmers markets throughout the season, from mid March until early May. Free-flow frozen chestnuts can be bought from Asian food stores and sweetened chestnut purees, for baking and desserts, can be found at specialty stores. Chestnuts are gluten free and some growers also process the nuts into flour for baking. When buying chestnut flour from a store, be sure to check that it is not water chestnut flour. Water chestnuts are not related.
Highly perishable chestnuts should be stored in the fridge unless being used soon after harvesting. They are high in vitamin C, folate, potassium and protein but are low in calories.
Chestnuts should be cooked before being consumed. 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 and enjoy! When buying, look for plump nuts and shiny shells without any bruising. 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.
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 common overseas. That’s good news for all of us: sprays are not needed.
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.
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 that take the angst out of the job. (Pictured above: $50 for plastic model, $60 with replacement blades.)
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.