There are few smells more evocative than the waft of roasting chestnuts and few more perfect ways of spending a Sunday afternoon than sitting by a blazing fire roasting and eating chestnuts you’ve gathered yourself. But when time is at a premium, standing in a hot kitchen cutting the shells to stop them bursting, then burning your hands trying to peel them, is about as therapeutic as being in the slowest supermarket checkout queue. This is where ready peeled vacuum-packed chestnuts come in. They’re not as heavenly as the freshly roast specimens, but they work in cooking and are ideal for all the recipes below.
The inspiration for these was a a visit to the Ardèche region, which regards itself as the chestnut capital of France. Apart from beautiful countryside, it has 65 different varieties of chestnut - far more than it has grape varieties, although it’s proud of its wines too. For those of you dealing with your own harvest, see below on how to peel and cook them
Peeling and cooking chestnuts Put the chestnuts flat side down on a chopping board and with a sharp knife - kitchen or Stanley - cut a slit from half-way down to the pointed end. (I forgot to do this once when I was roasting them in an open fire and they started exploding out into the room alarmingly.)
You can now either boil them in a pan for about 15 minutes or roast them at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for 20 minutes.
If you boil them, leave them in the water when cooked and take them out one by one to peel, because they get more difficult to peel as they cool. Wear an oven glove to hold them. If roasting them, take them from the oven and wrap in a tea towel, again taking them out one by one to peel.
To cook chestnuts, simmer them in water, stock or milk until tender (usually 15-20 minutes). This is not necessary for all recipes where the chestnuts will get cooked anyway, but is a precaution worth taking with stuffings and cakes.
Quick ideas • Toss them with cooked brussel sprouts, crisply fried diced bacon and some nutmeg.
• Braise them slowly with red cabbage and apple.
• Put them in a salad, which includes a bitter leaf such as radicchio, with crisp diced bacon, chorizo or smoked duck breast.
• Mix mashed chesnuts with mashed potato.
• Make a quick chestnut cream by beating 2 tbsp of dark rum into a 435g tin of unsweetened chesnut purée. Mix in 55g of icing sugar, then fold in 150ml of whipped double cream. Serve with crisp sweet biscuits or brandy snaps.