On a recent trip to Italy I dropped into a temporary shack set up just like a Christmas tree lot but this one featured all things “chestnut.” You could sit down to eat some freshly roasted chestnuts and drink a glass of wine before moving on for your evening. There was also a variety of prepared chestnut products as well as raw chestnuts you could purchase. The place was quite packed and the warmth from the roaster was comforting in contrast to the cold wind blowing outside.
At this time of year across Northern Italy you’ll see roasted chestnut stands on street corners of cities large and small. These businesses are the Italian version of pumpkin patches and Christmas tree lots, completely seasonal and a reminder of more modest times. The vendors take up their position on corners and piazzas, roast chestnuts over an open fire and sell them for a few bucks in paper cones. You’ll see the skins strewn across cobblestone streets as people munch while strolling. Chestnuts are omnipresent this time of year in Northern Italy on menus, in markets and in the orchards that carpet Piedmont.
This encounter got me thinking about why we don’t see chestnuts as publicly available in the Bay Area. I had a minor eureka moment and remembered that years ago the Chronicle had mentioned that you could collect chestnuts somewhere in San Mateo County.
The drive down is a great experience unto itself. In less than an hour from San Francisco you enter into a completely rural landscape. Should you take the quick route down 280 you turn west on Sand Hill Road and climb through the economic strata: Massive houses, equestrians hugging the road and packs of people on really nice bikes. Then you reach the redwoods and classic coastal California. Hairpin turns pull you onto ridges that yield pristine views of the entire bay one minute, then rolling hills descending into the Pacific the next. Along the way you can stop to pick up a picnic or even a glass of wine because Thomas Fogerty winery lies directly in your path.
Once you arrive at Skyline Chestnuts the process is easy. You show up and the proprietors, Hans and Donna Johsens, give you a bucket and some heavy leather gloves and then point you down the trail where you’ll find a series of chestnut trees and the ground carpeted by nuts and the bristly pods that contain them known as burrs. Most of the nuts are already nude on the ground so the collection process is pretty straightforward. Occasionally you’ll find some that haven’t completely emerged from the burrs so you’ll need to pry them out with your securely gloved hands. Collect until you’re content and enjoy San Mateo County’s open space because it’s quite amazing. You might also want to gather some of the burrs as well — they make great table decorations for Thanksgiving.
Now what do you do with your bounty? Roasting is by far the easiest and most traditional way. Skyline Chestnuts sells chestnut knives which makes the process easier. They also sell classic roasting pans and recipe books. To roast them score each chestnut with an X on the flat side and place a bunch in a roasting pan at 350 degrees for about 10-15 minutes.
Check them periodically and once the corners of the X point upwards they should be done. Take them out and place the chestnuts in a towel,twist it so that they all crack and then serve. It will still take some work to peel them but it’s a great post prandial event or even a great early evening event for kids.
The process of skinning chestnuts can be rather laborious but if you have a few people gathered around a table it can be a pleasant social activity and the rewards are worthwhile. As an ingredient, chestnuts are an excellent addition to many types of dishes. There’s nothing quite like the taste of truly fresh chestnuts tossed into salads, sauteed with Brussels sprouts or in cakes and soups. Recipes abound and stretch across all meals and courses so dive into that cookbook collection or search online resources. I’ve included a few recipes to get you started. With Thanksgiving a week away I urge you to consider adding chestnuts to your feast because they add a completely different flavor to the mix.