Wednesday 8 October 2008

That old chestnut

Chestnuts for drying

In the golden glow of an autumn day a basket of sweet chestnuts is a very lovely thing. In a good year, it's easy, with a little diligence and some prickled fingers to take a harvest that is far greater than can be consumed in the immediate present. So it's useful to know how to preserve the bounty for a little longer.

First of all you need to examine each nut minutely. The nuts should be full and round. Shrivelled or rattling shells indicate the nut is malformed or ancient; unfit to eat and certainly no good to store.

If there are any holes, and we're talking the size of pinheads here, chuck it out because it will have been invaded by the chestnut weevil grub. Not a nice way to get your B12. If you suspect your nuts are very weevilly it's possible to give them a hot water treatment to kill the grubs. That will certainly stop them eating the kernel but it doesn't actually remove the worm. You'll have to make your own mind up on that.

The chestnut is quite a wet fruity sort of a thing. It dries out quickly and it needs to be kept cold to maximise its shelf life. When you've picked them over, washed them off and allowed them to air dry for an hour or two, divide them up into usefully sized quantities and place each portion in a plastic bag. Seal tightly and keep in the cooler part of the fridge. They should last until xmas but check them regularly. They don't really store for long.

I've read that it's possible to extend the storage life by soaking the freshly gathered nuts in cold water for 20 hours before drying and storing in sand. It may work, but I've no experience of this.

It's possible to cook the nuts and store them in cans, vacuum packs or the freezer but by far the most traditional way of keeping sweet chestnuts to eat in the following year is to dry them. In Corsica they have special drying sheds, but they also have rather better weather for drying. It's much easier to use a dehydrator or even your oven.

Pick over your nuts again and then with a sharp heavy bladed knife cut them in half. This gives you another chance to check the fruit for worms. These are few that I found.

eeuww, wormy

Lay the good nuts cut side down in the dryer and allow to dry on a medium heat for 12 hours or so. The kernels will shrivel and the shells and outer skin can then be removed more easily. It's quite a tedious task and although the shells come off easily enough the inner skin isn't always so simple. Sometimes it pings off in a satisfying single crust but more often only part of the skin falls away leaving a patch stuck on. Then you run the risk of a razor sharp piece of hardened skin stuck under your fingernail as you try to pick it off. I'll be looking for a more effective way of skinning the nuts next year.

Store in a very dry tightly sealed jar and they should stay good until the next harvest comes in.

They will need cooking in boiling water before using in your usual recipes.

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