The Chestnut sellers weren’t at the markets last week, I doubt they’ll be there today. And while there is still frost in the mornings, while flowers might be few and far between, I can’t help thinking this marks the end of winter.
The Roast Chestnut sellers are without doubt one of my favourite parts of winter. It’s my post-run ritual. There’s something about holding that hot brown bag, cradling it to protect it from the cold, peeling shell from nut flesh, and then devouring 150gm of nutty goodness in the carpark that just makes running 6km in the bitter cold seem so worth it.
Chestnuts are full of associations for me. I didn’t grow up eating chestnuts. They were the stuff of Christmas Carols and Dickens, not actually a real foodstuff like cashews and macadamias – the nuts of choice for an Australian Christmas. So the first chestnuts I ate were brought by someone else happy who was happy to share the secret. A hot cone of waxed brown paper on a golden Autumn day – in Nimes, France.
I had trouble deciding what to make of them. They were not what I was excpecting and took me quite by surprise. Chestnuts are quite different in texture to other nuts (in part becuase they are actually a fruit), fleshy, soft, fibrous. I have a terrible time imagining what they would be like raw. But the day was so perfect, the experience so special, the lovely French grand-peres playing Bocce so sweet when they caught me spying on them – that chestnuts became wrapped up, inextricably, with one of my favourite travel days.
Obviously one perfect day isn’t enough to make you fall in love with a food, but it it enough to inspire a second try. And I’ll be the first to admit that chestnuts, piping hot from the roaster, needing to be gobbled right away, are as much experiential as flavour. But at its heart, so very much of what draws us to food, is experiential. Comfort foods, winter foods, Christmas foods, exotic foods, fine dining – its all wrapped up in values, enjoyment and associations beyond the flavour (though I would never go so far as to suggest flavour is not a central component of the equation.
I know you can cook with chestnuts. I had a lovely mushroom and chestnut risotto on the Mornington Peninsular at Easter, and Maggie Beer devotes several pages to their versatility in her fabulous tome on seasonal local cooking Maggie’s Harvest. But for me, the pleasure of the Chestnut seller and the simple flavoursome flesh means I can not imagine cooking with them myself, they would never last long enough for me to do that. I eat them too quick.