• Beneath the brown shell, chestnuts hide a versatile heart (Chestnuts Australia)Source: Chestnuts Australia
Make everything from brownies to braises, and discover how to make a chestnut 'smile'!
By
Kylie Walker

21 Aug 2020 - 12:01 PM  UPDATED 19 Aug 2021 - 1:16 PM

Buffalo Queen. Bouche de Bétizac. Ruby Tuesday. It sounds like a cocktail list – but in fact, these are the names of chestnut varieties.

The humble little brown chestnut is so much more than it seems at first glance. And the wonderfully romantic names of some of the varieties grown in Australia are just the start of it. It’s incredibly versatile, lending itself to everything from brownies and puddings to meltingly tender meaty braises. And that’s because it’s more like a fruit or a vegetable than a nut. Inside the hard, brown shell lies creamy flesh that can be cooked, candied or turned into flour – which means you can enjoy chestnuts all year round.

The classic way to eat them, of course, is roasted.

“Hot roasted chestnuts are fantastic and really easy to make. The thing with chestnuts, though, is that they are rarely eaten alone. People have parties and all get around the barbeque, roast chestnuts, drink wine and talk, talk, talk,” says Victoria’s Jane Casey, who along with her husband Brian has been growing chestnuts for more than 20 years. Through their business Cheznuts, the couple sell chestnut products across Australia and to export markets. “Chestnuts seem to have an innate ability to evoke the warmest memories in people. When we have roasted chestnuts at farmers markets so many people reminisce about being on holiday overseas, walking the streets of Paris or Rome or New York eating roasted chestnuts, or when they were kids... I don't know of any other food that seems to get such a warm reaction.  Ask anyone what image the word chestnut conjures up and they will most likely say an open fire, a glass of wine... They really are a comfort food.”

Two types

Those wonderfully named chestnut varieties (others include de Coppi Marone, Purton’s Pride and Red Spanish) can be divided into two main types.

“We put them into two categories,” explains Federico (Fred) Pucci, who grows chestnuts at Keldaniel Farm near Batlow in New South Wales. “The European varieties, they're a bit more spherical. And then there's the Asian, Chinese, Japanese, Korean varieties, they've got a bit more of a shell shape. The European ones work better for roasting and barbecue – the sort of thing that you see in Corsica, Italy, France, roasted on the streets. Whereas the Japanese, Chinese and Korean varieties are good for boiling, for stir-frying, in dishes. You can put the European ones into dishes, too, but they have different volatile compounds, different elasticity, so they react to heat in different ways.”

Pucci was born in Montecatini in Tuscany, so chestnuts, necci (Tuscan chestnut flour crepes) and castagnaccio – a chestnut flour cake – were familiar foods. So far, Pucci’s farm has sold fresh chestnuts, but they are now looking at chestnut flour, too.

Autumn harvest

Australia produces about 1300 tonnes of chestnuts a year, more than two-thirds of it grown in north-east Victoria. The chestnuts grow as prickly burrs that fall to the ground when ripe, so the harvest consists of carefully gathering the spiky balls. The outer layer is removed to release the glossy chestnuts, usually 2-3 from each burr.

The fresh chestnut season runs from mid-March to July, although you may find them available as late as September.

“Fresh nuts store well in a cool room at about zero degrees for several months,” explains Rohan Whelan, of Growlers Creek Grove, an organic chestnut farm at Wandiligong in Victoria with a long and fascinating history (some trees on the farm are more than 140 years old). “They have a similar storage life to a fresh apple. As the selling season progresses, cool-stored nuts develop more sweetness but will eventually spoil and it becomes more important to be diligent when purchasing.

"The outer brown shell (husk) should be reasonably shiny. If pressed, there may be a small air gap between the husk and the nut, but the nut itself should be firm.”

Store your chestnuts in the fridge, wrapped in a cloth or in a plastic bag with a few holes in it, to allow airflow. Commercial cool rooms are a lot colder than home fridges, so it’s best to use chestnuts within two weeks of purchase. You can also freeze raw or roasted chestnuts.

“Unlike other nuts, chestnuts are almost 50 per cent moisture so need to be stored more like fresh vegetables,” Jane Casey explains. “It's this moisture that leads to nuts exploding if you don't score them prior to roasting.” (Don’t worry, it’s easy to avoid that – read on!)

Some chestnut growers have expanded their business to offer peeled and frozen chestnuts or vacuum-packed cooked chestnuts. A few, including Cheznuts, now sell chestnut flour too, which can be used in everything from chestnut pasta to molten-centred puddings.

The classic roast

Our favourite way to eat chestnuts is traditionally roasted… on a fire, in the oven, on a grill, in a BBQ… something really hot! As a treat - roasted, peeled and then tossed with olive oil, garlic and salt,” says Rohan Whelan, and he’s not alone in his enthusiasm for this traditional treat, a popular winter street food in Italy, France and other places too.

And it’s easy to do.

The key when roasting (and baking, barbecuing or microwaving) chestnuts is to make a shallow cut in the shell. This will stop the nuts from bursting open. Instead, the cut opens to show the creamy-yellow flesh. We rather like how Jane and Bryan Casey describe this: “When the nuts roast this cut separates and the yellow flesh can be seen – we call this the ‘smile’ and we are always happy to see our roasted chestnuts smiling at us.”

After roasting, wrap the chestnuts in a cloth or several layers of paper and leave for  5-10 minutes – this will make them easier to peel.  (You can read more details in this recipe for pan-roasted chestnuts and in these instructions for oven-roasted chestnuts. You can also cook them under a grill  - the Caseys explain how on their website.)

Braises, brownies, pastries and puffs

“Chestnuts are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates making them low GI and a good source of protein. Perfect for vegetarians and vegans. They are super versatile - use them whole as pieces, pureed, dried, or as flour. They go equally well in savoury or sweet dishes and whilst they sometimes have the label of being poor people's food, marrons glacés [candied chestnuts] are about as glam as you can get,” says Jane Casey.  

Super-versatile indeed. On the savoury side, you’ll often find them in the hearty soups and stews, making the most of the autumn harvest – try them in this chicken, pear and port casserole or this roasted chestnut and fennel soup.  You can even make a chestnut hummus.

Or put a twist on meatballs with these chicken and chestnut meatballs – they’re made with cooked and peeled chestnuts, so you can make these any time of year.

The slightly sweet, slightly savoury nature of chestnut flesh means it works well in sweet dishes too, and it makes an especially good partner with chocolate.

Try it in Gabriel Gaté’s chocolate cream with glacé chestnuts and raspberries (crème de chocolat et marrons glacés aux framboises); in flourless chocolate chestnut and rosemary cake made with sweetened chestnut puree; in chestnut cream puffs; or these chestnut pastries with vino cotto (made with chestnuts and chestnut puree)

And for brownie lovers, here’s one for you: rich gluten-free chocolate brownie studded with chestnuts.

Flour power

If you’ve never tried cooking with chestnut flour, you’re not alone. When Ainsley Harriott travelled to Corsica to film the first episodes of Ainsley’s Mediterranean Cookbook, he ate many things made from chestnuts, including pasta made with chestnut flour and chestnut beer; and a cake made with chestnut flour. “I love … that I found out so much about chestnut flour, because it’s something I’ve never used before,” he says. Inspired by his chestnut eating adventures (he also has chestnut-fed boar), he makes chestnut beignets (like little doughnuts), which he serves with chestnut liqueur. That’s a lot of chestnuts, but it also shows how versatile chestnuts are.

Chestnut flour is gluten-free and has a warm, slightly nutty taste. It can be used in pasta (try this chestnut pasta with pork and cabbage, cakes, crepes and pancakes (try Italian chestnut flour crepes with honey, pine nuts and rosemary or these Japanese chestnut cream pancakes) and puddings (like this fondant, which oozes chocolate-chestnut sauce when you dig a spoon in).

A classic use, of course, is castagnaccio, a chestnut flour cake, and it's one of Jane Casey's favourite ways to use the flour. 

“I have an Australianised version of the Italian castagnaccio. It's a wonderful cake with pine nuts and rosemary. It has honey but no sugar and the flour is so flavourful it almost ends up tasting like gingerbread,” she says. (The recipe she shares on her website does have sugar, but Jane tells us that these days, she leaves it out. Chestnut flour is quite sweet she says, and she finds the cake is perfect just using honey.)

If you're feeling the love for chestnuts now, you can find more great ideas for cooking with them in our chestnut recipe collection

Lead image Photo by Chestnuts Australia. Chestnut burr image by Rifca Peters via Flickr. Street stall image by Francesco Paggiaro from Pexels.

More ways to cook with chestnuts
Sohm al tart (chestnut tart)

A traditional Ishgardian cake made up of several stacked layers tapered to resemble Sohm Al, a peak sacred to the Dravanians. Ishgardians believe that devouring the mountain will grant them fortune in their struggle with the dragons.

Roasted carrots, apples and chestnuts (carote, mele e castagne al forno)

Roasted carrots, chestnuts, cippolini onions and a few apples make a delicious mix to go with a roast,

Chestnut, chocolate and almond ravioli

True pasta lovers will appreciate a sweet version of the Italian flour staple. This one by Canberra's Italian & Sons, fried until crisp around the edges, is a warm and nutty ode to Autumn. Serve with a good dusting of cinnamon and vanilla sugar for a memorable end to a meal.

Sweet sticky rice with fruit, nuts and honey (yaksik)

“Yaksik” means “medicinal food” in Korean and it’s thought the name comes from the fact that honey, an  essential ingredient in this cake, was once called “yak”, or “medicine.” This sweet dish is traditionally eaten at weddings and at hwangab (60th birthday) festivities; a 60th birthday has enormous significance in Korea. 

Ham with leek and chestnuts (šunka sa porilukom i kestenom)

This is a wintry dish for any pork lover. It all started when I spotted a big box of chestnuts at the fruit and vegetable shop. Shiny brown little beauties beckoning me to sink in my hand, clutch a big handful and take them home. What could I do with them? I wanted something that matched the current season. Something that was warming, a little rich and with simple flavours. So when I came across a hunk of smoked pork thigh, or speck, I knew it would go nicely. As I was cooking, I couldn't help but pretend that I was in some stone farmhouse surrounded by wild rosemary shrubs on the rocky Istrian coastline in Croatia, pottering away in the kitchen. If only that was how things happened.

Braised red cabbage with glazed chestnuts

Chestnuts and cabbage make a great side dish for cold months. You can use fresh, frozen or canned chestnuts. 

Lamb pilaf (plov)

Give this recipe for Azerbaijan's national dish a go. Saffron rice is topped with meltingly tender lamb, slow cooked with a range of ingredients including dried apricots, dried chestnuts and cumin