Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Not That Old Chestnut!

Long time ago -- has it really been almost twenty years? -- I spent a semester in Grenoble, France. When I arrived in August, the weather was almost unbearably hot, but as autumn drifted over the valley, sweeping leaves and bitter winds into my path, I settled into the routine and the fragrances of my temporary home.

Around Thanksgiving, as the weather grew colder, I could walk around the centre ville on a gray day and breathe in those unmistakable French perfumes: yeasty bread at the boulangerie, strong bracing coffee, decadent and creamy chocolates, and the occasional toasty aroma of chestnuts roasted by sidewalk vendors. With each sale, the vendor would hand over a paper bag laden with steaming nuts in exchange for a few francs, and the customer would walk away, clutching the warmth of the bag.

Such an old-fashioned, rustic tradition, I thought. How very European!

But Dear Readers, I must confess: I never bought a single chestnut.

At that younger age, I failed to seek out many new adventures, even of the culinary variety. I had my tastes, and even though I expanded my likes (and dislikes) at my host family's dinner table, I didn't change my ways easily.

And so I returned home, having never experienced a number of French dishes, the roasted chestnuts being at the top of the list.

During the fall, I will occasionally see chestnuts at the supermarket here, but I've never been tempted. I saw them once, two years back, at the farmers' market, and I missed my opportunity to try them then. But on Saturday's outing with the faithful Persephone, I spotted fresh local chestnuts at the local orchard, and I decided to splurge.

Since I had extra time this afternoon, and the weather obliged me by being suitably gray and damp, I pulled out the chestnuts and a sharp knife.

All my recipes for roasted chestnuts indicate that you should cut a deep X in the flat side of the nuts so that they won't explode in the oven. (It also helps with peeling the nuts once they're roasted.) That's easier said than done, though. I had to choose very carefully how I held each nut in order to slash the hull without slicing my own skin as well. And more than a few times, I lost my grip and the chestnut went skittering across the hardwood floor.

Eventually, I worked my way through all the chestnuts, and I spread them on a baking sheet to roast them (15 minutes at 425 F). When they came out, they were ready to peel.

I can't tell you how much I was looking forward to sampling this treat at last! The aroma as they emerged from the oven was akin to a sweet and spicy nut bread, combining walnuts and pecans and a hint of hazelnuts... in short, tempting.

I'm afraid to report, though, that that was the high point of my adventure. From that point on, things went wrong:

--The flavor of the first one I tried failed to impress me. I could sense the richness of the nut, but the texture was grainy and the taste was one that didn't really please me. Still, I soldiered on, hoping to try a roasted chestnut soup recipe I'd found.

--Alas, well over half of the nutmeats were wormy or otherwise spoiled beyond use, so I ended up not having enough for a full recipe of soup.

--Of course, I didn't read the recipe all the way through before starting -- Lesson to All: Read the Recipe First! -- so I started the soup and had the onions, garlic, and carrots simmering nicely in homemade vegetable broth before I realized that the onions, garlic, carrots, and water were intended to make the broth for the chestnut soup. Instead, I turned that simmering mess into a different soup altogether and set aside the rest of the pre-made broth for the chestnut soup.

--The chestnuts were too grainy to puree into a smooth consistency, even with the broth and some white wine.

--When I strained the chestnut "puree" into a saucepan in order to heat the soup, I ended up with at least half of the puree strained out because the chestnuts did not grind up well.

--And when I finally managed to serve myself one small bowl of soup...

...the flavor and texture came as a serious disappointment after all the work I'd done.

That's one of the problems with trying to eat more mindfully, whether it's focusing on local foods or reducing waste or anything else: sometimes you find something that just doesn't work. I'm more willing to take chances on unknown foods now than I was in college, but sometimes I find that in the end, the money and time I spent on a long shot weren't really worth it after all, and I feel even worse for wasting the food. The vast majority of the time, things do work out, and I'm pleased to have learned something new. But once in a rare while, they don't, and... c'est la vie!

Fortunately, I had other things in the works for dinner, but that really was a depressing experiment, of a kind I'm glad I don't have often. I do have a few more chestnut meats left, but after that, I really have no idea how to use them.

So, Dear Readers, do you have any suggestions for "that old chestnut"?


At 10/06/2007 9:39 PM, Blogger Alyssa said...

I don't have any suggestions for you...sorry, I'm not a big fan of them either. My friend puts them in her stuffing and swears by them, I could definitely leave them.

At 10/07/2007 2:18 PM, Blogger The Baklava Queen said...

That's right, I'd forgotten about stuffing. Hmmm... doubt I have enough for that recipe, and I'm not a huge fan of stuffing anyway, but I might have to find a recipe just to see what it takes.


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