World of Mouth: Chestnuts and Conkers

The column that brings you food festivals from around the world. This week: why are the British hitting each other with chestnuts?

 Boozy chestnut and squash soup 311 (photo credit: Miriam Garcia)
Boozy chestnut and squash soup 311
(photo credit: Miriam Garcia)
Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.
It’s October, the weather is getting nippy, and for British children everywhere that means it’s time to play conkers! In this festive game, each player ties a horse chestnut (“conker” in British parlance) to the end of string, and then attempts to strike and break the conker of their opponent. However, Conkers isn’t just for kids, and on Sunday, October 10th in Northamptonshire, England, conker players from all over the world competed in the World Conker Championship, an annual event since 1965.
While some are content to participate wearing  just the official contestant vest, many others dress as mariachi band members, superheroes, knights, clowns, cowboys or nuns while competing hoping that this will give them just enough edge to end the day seated on the “conker throne." The event raises money for charities for the blind and visually impaired. Rather ironic considering that some primary school in England, required students to wear safety goggles while playing in order to prevent shards of broken conkers from damaging their eyes.
While the British whack at each other with horse chestnuts the rest of Europe, as well as many parts of Asia, are celebrating a completely different kind of chestnut this month- the edible “sweet” chestnut. In the coming weeks, the smoky sweet aroma of roasting chestnuts will drift through the air as chestnut festivals take place in villages across France, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, Greece, Romania, Portugal, Croatia, Japan, China and Korea.
While several Italian villages are hosting chestnut festivals this month, one of the most popular is Soriano’s  “Sagra delle Castagne”which takes place for the first two weeks of October and includes celebratory parades, jousting, archery and reenactments of famous medieval. Another popular festival is the “Sagra del Marrone” which is in Castel del Rio near Bologna. This video from the event shows just a few of the many tasty ways that the Italians prepare and enjoy their chestnuts.
In France, they’re celebrating the chestnut with a number of regional “Fêtes de la Chataigne”  during which villages enjoy local specialties such as “daube de sanglier” à la chataigne (wild boar with chestnuts), smoked fois gras with chestnuts, “marrons glacés” (chestnuts that have been candied with a sugar syrup and then glazed), and of course the famous “Mont Blanc,” which usually consists of a cake topped with chestnut cream that has been piped out to resemble a mountain of spaghetti.
For Mediterranean countries in particular, the chestnut has always been important and it is said that some populations survived on little else during certain periods in history. In North America, chestnuts were also commonly eaten until a disease wiped out nearly the entire chestnut tree population in the early 20th century. Unfortunately this means that aside from the occasional Thanksgiving turkey stuffing, most Americans wouldn’t know what to do with a chestnut if it hit them on their head.
Aside from its nutritional value (low in fat and high in Vitamin C, iron and potassium), one of the reasons that the chestnut has always been popular is simply due to its sheer versatility. Their crumbly potato texture and mild, sweet, nutty flavor makes them ideal to either eat on their own (raw, steamed, grilled, roasted, boiled or baked), or to augment other foods, both sweet and savory. They can be used for stuffing vegetables and for thickening, as well as adding texture and flavor to soups, stews, and sauces. They can be ground into chestnut flour and used to make bread and cakes, made into ice cream, brewed into beer or distilled to make brandy and liquors.
Over on the other side of the world, chestnut filled “jiaozi” dumplings are considered a lucky New Year’s food in China, and on the Japanese New Year, people eat “Kuri Kinton,” a mixture of mashed sweet potatoes and chestnuts that is said to give strength and power. Meanwhile, during chestnut season in Korea, the citizens make “Bam Baap,” chestnut rice, chestnut bread, and “Yak-ka,” a chestnut sweet made with honey, sugar, brandy and salt.
Hungry for chestnuts yet?
If you don’t live in an area where fresh chestnuts are sold, they can be bought frozen, dried, vacuum packed or canned in many specialty markets. If you can buy them fresh, here are some important tips to remember when you prepare them:
-Use a serrated paring knife to carve a small x into each chestnut before cooking. Otherwise they will explode and you will have a mess on your hands.
-There are many methods of cooking chestnuts (on the grill, over an open fire, in the microwave, etc.) but probably the easiest ways are to either boil them until tender, or roast them by placing them in a shallow pan, sprinkling them with water and then roasting for about 25 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit (220 Celsius).
-After cooking, place the hot, unpeeled chestnuts under a towel to steam them for a bit
-Make sure to remove both the hard outer shell and the thin inner membrane that covers the chestnut.
-Once peeled, chestnuts to do not keep well so immediately freeze what you don’t use.
-If you have a large number of chestnuts to peel, please get a friend or family member to help you. I learned this lesson the hard way.
Spanish food blogger Miriam Garcia has a number of chestnut recipes on her blog The Winter Guest.  Here is her recipe for “Boozy Chestnut and Squash Soup.” Perfect for a chilly autumn evening!
Boozy chestnut and squash soup
1/2kg squash
olive oil
250g dried chestnuts (equivalent to 400g fresh chestnuts, though I prefer them dried, at least you don't need to peel them)
1 large onion, finely minced
2  generous glasses sweet wine (one for the soup and another one for the cook... I used a Pedro Ximenez wine, Dos pasas, but any good tawny Port or moscatel would do)
1 pinch nutmeg
1 liter water, chicken or vegetable stock
Note: If you use dried chestnuts, leave them overnight to soak in water or wine.
1. Heat the oven to 180°C. Brush the squash with olive oil and roast it for around 30 minutes until cooked through.
2. Boil the chestnuts in the wine and in the meantime, sauté the onion in a bit of olive oil until completely soft and beginning to turn a golden brown. Add them to the chestnuts and wine.
3. Test the squash with a knife for doneness. If it's cooked, peel it, cut it in several pieces and add to the chestnuts.
4. Add the water or stock and boil everything until the chestnuts are tender.
5. Add the nutmeg and salt and puree the mixture using a blender. Use a food mill if your machine is not powerful enough to get rid of little hard chestnut pieces. Once everything is pureed, adjust the salt to your
taste. Adjust the liquid also if needed, depending on the thickness.
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