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Country Gentleman: Homegrown chestnuts a seasonal treat

Snow-covered branches of a maple tree are seen in Shinano, Nagano Prefecture, on Dec. 7, 2017. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

One of the wonderful smells I remember as a boy in Britain back in the 1940s and 1950s was the fragrance of roasted chestnuts. Street vendors would sell them from barrows with wood-burning stoves. My mother would also buy fresh chestnuts, which we would take home and roast by lining them up on the grate in front of the living room fire. You had to remember to prick them first, or they were liable to explode!

    I was introduced to Japanese chestnuts at a friend's house over celebrations for the new year in 1963, where they were served with those special dishes that were such a culinary adventure to me. The following autumn, walking in the woods, I picked a whole pocketful of the small wild chestnuts and took them back to a mountain hut to roast them on a stove. They were tiny, about as big as the end of my little finger, but very tasty.

    About 35 years ago a local friend here in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture, gave me a bagful of chestnuts from his own trees. These were big ones, like the sweet chestnuts I had known as a boy. I planted some in pots and ate the rest. Now one of those chestnut trees I planted produces a few buckets of chestnuts for us every autumn. We have to pick them very quickly, or they will soon become the winter home for little white grubs. Another reason for picking them first thing in the morning is because our two horses, Yukimaru and Chachamaru have discovered the taste and crunch them, skins and all. Before that, if we left chestnuts on the ground, wild boar would soon find them.

    There are eight or nine species of true chestnuts, and many cultivars. As a boy I was told that the Romans introduced chestnuts to Britain, some 2,000 years ago, brought in from Asia Minor where they have been cultivated since around 2000B.C. In Japan chestnuts have been cultivated and used as a staple food since Jomon times. Chestnuts have little fat or protein, but are rich in carbohydrates. They contain no gluten.

    It is tremendously satisfying to be able to pick chestnuts from a tree I planted myself, and in the future I'll plant more, for future generations and wildlife.

    Now each year I take the chestnuts, boil them, cut them in two before scooping the meat out with a small spoon. I then pack the meat in vacuum bags and freeze them. At Christmas it is always me who cooks the turkeys. (I would prefer the more traditional geese, but they are very difficult to get hold of.)

    I make a stuffing for the birds using chopped onions, some minced venison or wild boar, adding the chopped up livers, hearts and gizzards of the birds. I mix in the chestnut meat and flavor with salt, black pepper, sage, rosemary and thyme. I cook the birds in a roasting pan, with a lid, basting frequently and surrounded with chopped apples so that the turkeys don't cook dry.

    Living in the country and being able to share our special meals and to supplement our food from the nature around us makes me feel like a proper country gentleman indeed. ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol.)

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