General · 9th December 2012
We are in the market for 40 or 50 lbs of chestnuts, fettering them out of their displays in grocery stores all over the city, squirreling them patiently into our large cloth shopping bags. Chef is testing some of her prized holiday recipes featuring the cerebrum-shaped nut, and her fervor in the kitchen has thrust us headlong into the quality-control cycle of our work. It is deliberate, soulful work, especially comforting at this time of the year; what with these heavy rains thrumming down on our bones from the steely heavens and Nightfall closing in on us at 4 ‘o’clock in the afternoon.
We are buying, cooking and tasting for every nuance in flavor, texture, aroma; noting performance under fire and integrity under water; evaluating every variation of chestnut character imaginable. We are mindful of provenance, terroir, hue, weight, shine; even price. There are chestnuts imported from China, the world leader in chestnut exports by some accounts ($1.29/lb), and others imported from Italy, the sweetest and most robust ($4.99/lb. Or $9.99/lb, if you prefer, on the tony side of the street).
Today we are sorting our way through a fat hill of chestnuts from the USA (also $1.29/lb), in one of those labyrinth big box stores, with watered-down Christmas carols streaming out of the overhead speakers.
I like to test the staff’s knowledge of the products in the store, for it yields interesting facts on occasion.
“Haven’t a clue. Sorry,” says a young man stocking carrots nearby when I inquire if he knows anything about how to select chestnuts.
“I think you have to smell them,” offers a people-pleaser sales assistant. “If they smell nutty they’re good, but all of ours are pretty good. We just got a huge shipment yesterday. ” She herself, she confides, has never eaten any.
The hill of chestnuts on display releases the mild but unmistakable odor of mold as we approach it, a thin gray mist of the matter growing in certain clusters across the surface. This is cause for neither surprise nor alarm. The chestnut is comprised of over 50% water, the other half being a rich source of Vitamin C (rare for a nut), folate, the B-complex vitamins, potassium, other trace minerals, fibre, and a pure pack of starch for serious energy from Mother Nature. Small wonder it has served as a beloved staple in good times and a fortuitous “famine food” in bad, throughout its long, illustrious history. Today, its market cache is increased by the fact that it contains no gluten and thus is popular in gluten-free alternatives.
We will be washing all the nuts thoroughly and cooking them properly, so the natural mold poses no threat. Still, transport and handling must have played a role. Our haul from yesterday, gleaned out of a modest burlap sack in a locally owned grocery store specializing in Italian food imports, betrayed no visible signs of mold, though it came from a considerably longer distance.
Forty or fifty pounds is a lot of chestnuts to squirrel away when you are selecting them by hand, one at a time. The three of us, Chef , Sous- Chef and I, are plugging away at it, when a fourth pair of hands appears amongst us and plows deep into the hill of chestnuts. The woman to whom the hands belong has cheeks the color of beet juice, their soft edges browned by time and hard work. The scent of smoked paprika follows the economical movements of her head.
Her dark chestnut eyes sit high and back in her brow, watchful but kind. She tugs at my bag to inspect my picking and tosses a few of my choices back out onto the hill, replacing them with a few picks of her own. She is instructing me gently in some Eastern European dialect, as if we have been having this conversation over the bridge of many years, and it is clear she has taken a shine to the lot of us. She especially likes our little 8 year old Sous-Chef, who insisted on wearing her chef’s vest and her toque for this excursion, and has instinctively sidled up next to the woman to better understand what she is saying.
“Is this a good one?” beseeches our Sous Chef eagerly. The woman takes the child’s chestnut in her palm, rubs it to test its shine, lets her hand drop with the weight of it, pinches it between her fingers, and smiles.
“Da. Da, good” she says, nodding her beautiful grey curls up and down, stirring the cloud of smoked paprika.
Our Sous-Chef beams proudly.
You want to select nuts that are heavy for their size, their water content still intact. The shell should feel taught, to indicate that the interior is still swelling against it. If the shell gives way as you squeeze it with your fingers, the nut has withdrawn and is already shriveling inside. You want a nut that has no blemishes.
The woman picks one for her bag, one for mine, one for hers, one for Sous-Chef’s, one for hers, one for Chef’s. We can’t believe our luck.
“How do you cook them?” asks Chef, ever coaxing favorite cooking methods out of people who are just waiting to be asked.
“HHHH, ” strains our matron saint of chestnuts. “Waaatrrr,” she says a little shyly in English, her hands making the shape of a huge pan in front of her.
“Verry hothothot. Uumm, da” her hands bubble up,
“45 minute, da, Uumm” her hands drain the pan of boiling water into a winged colander, make a peeling motion and sprinkle some invisible salt into the air.
“Sit down,” the hands flip horizontally upwards, palms down, making an image of her kicking her feet up onto the coffee table,
“TV,” fiddling with the remote control,
“Eat,” she motions towards her mouth, a fistful of chestnuts moving towards a greater purpose.
Her eyes sparkle soberly at the thought of this evening’s comfort, her chestnuts cooked to the simplest perfection, their delicious flesh fending off not just the wolf of hunger but the wolves of sadness, loneliness, and life’s myriad other disappointments.
Her hands never stop tossing the good chestnuts into our pouches.
A man comes up beside her, a cloud of smoked paprika trailing him, and begins speaking to her in their private language. They engage in a short trade of words, domestic habits; functional, tender, sparse, and she disappears back into the brightly lit, cavernous traffic of holiday shoppers.
The three of us come together for a moment in the common loss of her, then continue our work.
An Asian woman replaces her and asks us how to pick the good chestnuts, but she doesn’t stay to let us finish our answer. Then a man, the air of an old jagged rock about him, settles into the spot our lost friend has vacated.
He is going to be a while.
“So how do you cook your chestnuts?, “ smiles Chef, buoyed at the prospect of another round.
The man ignores her. He is certain to have heard her jolly good humor, but his head never looks up from his labor and he recoils just a little bit, as if something in the air might sting him, to discourage the rest of us.
Chef, sensitive at being ignored, glances wistfully at me.
Our Sous-Chef hands me a nut and asks me, “Is this a good one?”
I toss it to the man who won’t look up, and as it crosses his line of sight, by reflex, he catches it. Holds it without speaking.
“Is that a good one?,” Sous-Chef asks him this time, without getting closer.
He weighs it in the palm of his hand, rubs it, knocks it with the knuckle of his other hand.
“Ya,” he says, slipping into his bag.
Sous-Chef giggles into the folds of her mother’s Chef’s jacket.
Chef tries again, sounding helpless and hapless.
“How do you cook chestnuts?”
Unable to get rid of us, it seems, he will appease us, so perhaps then we will leave him alone.
He is also of European descent, Italian I suspect, but I won’t go into my native Italian for fear of spooking him.
His English is well practiced enough.
“First you wash them, clean them good. Then you boil them for an hour.”
“An hour?” I let slip, wondering out loud at the discrepancy between today’s preferred cooking times, but I have clearly annoyed him. He squares his irate gaze at me, and repeats, as if I am an old brat who never listens “One hour,” his hands shaking under the strain of our attention.
“What about roasting them?, ” the question comes from another human of the male species that has joined us to the right of our Italian captive. Our Italian captive heaves with relief at having another man around. His comfort zone changes and his secrets start to flow.
“ You can’t roast these American ones” he says, directly to his rescuer, as confidently and sociably as if he is being interviewed on the Food Network. “They shrivel up and taste like coal.”
“But we roasted some once, they were so sweet, so delicate the meat, they just popped out of their shell by themselves, so buttery, so good,” he demonstrates the ease with which the beloved chestnuts of some distant past opened themselves to him, the emotional private memory of it flooding any propriety of the present, public moment.
We women remain invisible, to the side of this conversation, quiet as church mice.
“Those would have been Italian chestnuts, a completely different culitvar” explains the Italian authoritatively, free of any bias. “They are the only ones you can trust in the fire,” he elaborates, a wave of powerful nostalgia rising in his voice, a storm breaking on the jagged rocks.
“These American ones, you gotta boil. One hour. ”
A few other men, all bald, join the exchange, like moths gathering in the light, while we stand in the center, picking our chestnuts. They exchange a few more words, the wolves of various hungers always present in the periphery, then when there is nothing more to say about chestnuts, they all scatter at once in opposite directions.
We fall back into to the rhythm of our picking alone, and before we can look up from our work our matron saint of the chestnuts has returned to us. I smell her before I see her. Her English has improved considerably in the short time she has spent away from us, though my Ukrainian is no better. We make a little more music with our hands. She smiles a lot at us, throwing chestnuts in our bags all the while, then recedes again, this time forever, into the distance.
Ho Ho Ho to you and yours from,
The Foodwisdom Team.