CHESTNUTS

by Ed Halmagyi

Instructions

I have something of a habit of putting my foot in it. Some people’s cups runneth over, but in my case, it’s usually my mouth spilling out with unintended consequences.

I’ve accidentally told Pope jokes to ardent Jesuits, questioned Mormonism to a Salt Lake City local, queried the economic soundness of a fully-paid parental leave to a pregnant feminist, and insulted the courage of the French to a furious Parisienne.

Actually, the last one was pretty funny: “Did you hear about the new French flag? It’s a white cross on a white background.” I was nearly beaten to death with a day-old baguette!

But the worst was in Melbourne, while cooking at a gardening show. In the middle of preparing a delicious roast venison haunch with blackberries and chestnuts, I explained to the audience that I tend to take shortcuts with chestnuts, preferring to use the imported French ones because they’re peeled and cooked, ready to use, saving loads of time.

At that point an indignant woman at the rear of the room stood up and yelled ‘You fool!’.

‘What are you, a chestnut farmer?’ was my witty retort.

As it turned out, she was. And so were nearly half of the three hundred strong crowd. It seems that the chestnut farmers were having a day out together.

There and then I was compelled to make a public undertaking to never again use foreign chestnuts while the local ones are in season. And it’s a good thing too, because ours are superb.

Most Australian chestnuts are grown in Victoria’s north-east, although some are found near Orange and Mudgee as well. They prefer cool sub-alpine locations with decent rainfall.

The chestnuts themselves are a hairy beast on the tree, covered with thick ruffled matting. Inside in a hard yet pliable shell containing the prized fruit. When preparing chestnuts, there is a bit of work involved. Score the shell with a sharp knife then place them over a coal fire, or in a very hot oven until the shell begins to retract. They must be peeled while still hot, to ensure that the fine papery skin covering the nut pulls away.

The chestnut can then be eaten while still hot (it’s a little like a roast potato), use transformed into a variety of dishes, from gnocchi, to bread, to salad, to cakes. It’s a little bit of work, but great fun for the kids. And remember, use the local chestnuts while they’re in season. It’s a lot tastier to have chestnuts in your mouth, as opposed to your foot. Trust me!
Milk chocolate chestnut torte

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