Today, November 28th …
Half a century before the chestnut blight wiped out the chestnut forests of America, Henry Thoreau went into the woods on this day in 1856, to look for a lost comb. He “Unexpectedly [did] find many chestnuts in the burs which have fallen some time ago. Many are spoiled, but the rest, being thus moistened, are softer and sweeter than a month ago, very agreeable to my palate.”
This is the nut that John Evelyn (1664) said was “amongst the delicaces of Princes in other Countries … [and] is a lusty, and masculine food for Rustics at all times”. He bemoaned the fact that in England they were fed to swine, but then went on to suggest that “we might propagate their use, amongst our common people ...".
The chestnut must surely lay claim to being one of the most versatile of foods – eaten fresh or preserved (dried, canned or frozen), raw or cooked, as a staple or a delicacy, in all dishes from soup to nuts (Ouch! Sorry!) and for all consumers – the pigs, the poor, and the posh.
The French attempted to destroy the chestnut economy of Corsica in 1789. They called the chestnut “the food of laziness”, because by providing the Corsican Rustic with his staple “wooden bread” and his stock with fallen fodder, it allowed him to neglect the fields. It was however very acceptable for the rich and Princely French to enjoy the pick of the crop in a variety of luxurious ways - as soup, stuffing for turkey, sweetened purée, and especially as “marrons glacées”.
Nowadays we associate chestnuts with family celebrations such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, which might be a good time to remember that they also had a medicinal use in the past. As well as being “a first-rate remedy for cough and spitting of blood", please remember that “melancholy and Old Persons, also those who abound with gross and tartarous Humours ought to abstain from them.”
Those of your Christmas guests who are not gross and tartarous by nature might enjoy these easy Christmas recipes from “The Boston Cooking-School Cookbook” by Fannie Merritt Farmer (1896)
Shell one cup chestnuts, cut in thin slices, and fry until well browned, using enough butter to prevent chestnuts from burning. Season with Tabasco Sauce or few grains paprika.
To two cups thin Turkey Gravy add three-fourths cup cooked and mashed chestnuts.
Tomorrow … Inside entertaining.