The first chestnut I ever ate had a fancy French name ~ Marron glacé~ that sounded like an exotic, elegant ice cream. It was anything but. What looked like little brains were covered in layers of sugar that made my teeth ache, with a dense texture that tasted like wax. I didn’t go near a chestnut by any name for years.
But when we bought the farm it came with a stand of heirloom chestnut trees, which because of our remote location on the ridge had managed to survive the great blight of the early 1900’s. By the 1940’s almost the entire American chestnut population ~ we’re talking nearly 4 billion trees ~ had perished, making our little orchard of Chinquapin’s not only very old, but extremely rare.
The chestnut is the Marquis de Sade of the nut world, seductively emerging each November from a diabolical looking carapace of spikes. Even with long gloves to shake the trees, and heavy boots to loosen that S&M exoskeleton, you are still a long way from the soft nutmeat buried inside a hard glistening outer shell and, beneath that, a bitter, furry inner sheath that sticks to the fruit like it’s been glued on.
We had a good harvest this year ~ about 100 lbs ~ enough to set aside a burlap bagful to roast in the gardens for the Healdsburg Holiday Party on the day after Thanksgiving. But while roasting them over an open fire is a great way to eat them on a cold night, it can scorch and dry the nutmeat out. Chef has other plans for how to serve them in the dining room.
To get the outer shell off, he scores the nut with an x, then drops them in the deep fryer just long enough to split the shell. Then he cooks the nutmeat sous vide, long and slow, vacuum-sealed with a little butter, honey and pinch of salt. It’s a method that softens the sharp tannic bite of the nut, and while it still has that odd texture, just this side of mealy, the resulting flavor is rich, round and earthy.
The most popular entrée on the menu right now is this rustic pairing of crispy sliced duck breast and confit leg, honeyed butter chestnuts and huckleberry sauce. The perfect Fall dish, it's served with a scattering of roasted baby carrots and turnips, grilled fennel, and a house-made pierogi stuffed with a creamy blend of Bellwether ricotta, caramelized onions, chives, and shallots.
Chestnuts are a genus of the deciduous bushes and trees known as Fagaceae ~ which also includes oaks and beech. They are unisex, with self-pollinating flowers in the form of catkins. Fair enough. I take back what I said about the Marquis de Sade. But one sided though it may be, this is a courtship you don’t want to give up on.
All text and photos © Jil Hales.