The first of this year’s chestnuts have just arrived at Intermarché! For connoisseurs of things chestnutty, such as myself, the arrival of the first Perigord chestnuts every Autumn is regarded a bit like the way some people view Beaujolais Nouveau, except I doubt that there will ever be races to see who can get the first nuts from the Dordogne to Westminster Bridge, the way that some deluded souls do with that acidic brew that passes itself off for wine.
No, the Perigord chestnut is indeed the king (or queen, depending on your disposition) of nuts and bears no comparison to the inferior versions from Spain or Eastern Europe that find their way to the shores of the UK, 50% of which based on my experience, end up being either worm-eaten or rotten and have to be thrown away. The Perigord chestnut, in comparison, is plump and shiny and always a delight to the palate, except some years are better than others.
So what of 2014? Will it be a vintage year for the Perigord chestnut? Only one way to find out. At 5.99€/kilo they’re not cheap, but one of life’s lessons that we have to learn the hard way, indeed, some never do, is that quality always comes at a price. The up side, though, is that in Intermarché it’s a bit of a ‘Pick ‘N Mix’ and you get to select your own nuts, so you can make sure you always pick the plump, round firm ones and leave the thin, flat ones to those lesser mortals who either do not understand the difference that it makes or do not truly appreciate the Perigord chestnut for what it is. Here’s a picture of a few of the, ahem, modest size bagful that I picked up this morning.
‘So what’s all this about the perfect roast chestnut?’ I hear you ask, so this is where I put my best TV chef’s hat on, and here’s my advice. DON’T!! Roasting chestnuts is OK for sentimental Christmas TV shows and pictures on Christmas cards, but it’s the perfect way to ruin the nuts and create something semi-charred and practically inedible in the process. I devised an alternative method many years ago which I’ve perfected over the ages and which, done right, delivers the perfect nut and the nearest I think that you can get to chestnut perfection. And here’s what you do.
Take a few nuts, no less than three or it’s hardly worth it but usually no more than five or six, unless you’re sharing them (and who wants to share them eh?) Make sure you select nice round, plump ones and then carefully pierce them on two sides with a small fork. DO NOT miss this step out because it’s important as you’ll see later.
Wrap your pierced chestnuts in a sheet of kitchen roll. Make sure they’re totally enclosed and place them in your microwave ensuring that the loose end of the kitchen roll is on the bottom and therefore secured by the weight of the chestnuts. This is important, because from time to time if your piercing isn’t up to scratch, a chestnut can explode when the microwave is turned on and the kitchen roll prevents the nutty smithereens from being liberally distributed all around the inside of your microwave, causing much bad language, sometimes in front of children if they’re present, which of course cannot be condoned, and also requiring a great deal of time and effort to clean up afterwards.
Now we come to the scientific bit, which has to be based on trial and error, I’m afraid. Every microwave is different and it all depends on its power and the number and sizes of chestnuts that you’ve selected. It’s the mark of an expert, which you’ll come to appreciate as you become more of an expert yourself and more experienced in the art, that you get it right every time and always end up with the perfect result, so be prepared for a few mistakes in your early attempts. The reason is that perfect chestnuts only need a few seconds, say 20 or so depending on their size and number, in the microwave.
This is because each chestnut becomes its own perfect tiny pressure cooker and builds up a little head of steam as the microwaves take effect. The trick is to find the ‘right’ amount of time for your microwave that produces the perfect result but without going too far and making the chestnut itself soft and stodgy. So how will you know when you’ve got it right? Believe me, you’ll know. As soon as you start to remove the chestnut from its shell, you’ll know. For aficionados, such as myself with years of experience, the preferred way of cracking the shell is by biting it across its widest axis. You do need to have a mouth on the larger side to do this, but I’m told that that’s never been a problem for me. Catch it just right and you get the satisfaction of the shell neatly cracking around the toasty hot chestnut that now deliciously awaits you. But that’s not all – if you’ve achieved the perfect chestnut, which of course, only comes with practice, as you break away the shell the bitter brown inner skin that encloses the kernel itself, will also effortlessly detach itself and be removed with the shell.
You end up with a hot, steaming chestnut (careful not to burn your fingers when removing the shell!) that’s still deliciously crisp to the bite. All that’s then left is to enjoy it with a light sprinkling of salt. Ah, chestnut perfection! But a few words of caution to finish off with. Always make sure that your piercing is thorough! If not, the head of steam built up during the albeit brief microwaving process will remain within the shell of the nut. Then, when you come to the shell cracking process, it will be released at high pressure, which can make for some small but very nasty accidents. In my dedication to perfecting this process over the years, I’ve had to endure some very painfully burnt and blistered lips as this very thing has occurred and believe me, it’s not something you would want to wish upon yourself.
How many years, you might ask? Well, one Christmas when I was a lad of just 14, I gave myself the gripes due to my greed and a surfeit of roast chestnuts. To this day more than 50 years later, my mother, who is now 95 years old, when I tell her that I have bought some chestnuts, always tells me not to eat too many so that I give myself a stomach ache. Mothers eh? It’s why we love ’em – almost as much as we love ‘roast’ chestnuts 😉