Chestnuts are starting to appear in the shops ready for roasting over the fires for Christmas. I love roast chestnuts and if you haven't got an open fire you can roast them in the oven – but be careful to prick them first in case they explode. Chestnuts have been a staple food in the Mediterranean for thousands of years as they can be made into a form of flour for unleavened bread making.
Chestnut flour can also be used to make cakes, pancakes and pasta – it was the original ingredient for polenta. The chestnut bread can stay fresh for as long as 2 weeks and in the ancient world it was widely used as army rations. Alexander the Great planted chestnut trees across Europe whilst on various campaigns and the Greek army is said to have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-399 BC thanks to their stores of chestnuts.
Candied chestnuts appeared in the chestnut growing areas North of Italy and South of France shortly after the crusaders brought sugar back with them from the Middle East. You can still buy them today in the form of Marrons Glacés (for a home made recipe see Christmas Sweets and Treats – Marrons Glacés and Crémant d'Alsace).
The Italians soak their chestnuts in wine before roasting and this reminded me of Liqueur de Châtaigne – Chestnut Liqueur. This is a very aromatic liqueur and makes a great Autumnal Kir if you add it to white wine or champagne – a different twist to cassis! It is also fantastic served over vanilla ice cream, in coffee or with slices of melon.
There are a few companies that produce Liqueur de Châtaigne – it's well known in France and Italy - and in Madeira it is a traditional beverage. However you can make it at home.
How to peel your chestnuts:
Boil the chestnuts in a large saucepan of water for 20 minutes.
Remove and drain. Peel them whilst they are still hot – use rubber gloves to protect your fingers! Make a cut through the skin almost all the way round the chestnut and peel the skin away.
Place the chestnuts in a saucepan with the 200ml of water and simmer for 10 minutes with the lid on. Do not stir. Remove the chestnuts and stir the sugar into the water. Return the chestnuts to the saucepan and gently cook with the lid off for another 5 minutes. Place the chestnuts in a jar with a good seal; add the sugar solution from the pan and the brandy. Leave for liquor via a fine sieve then add the brandy. Store in a cool dark place for 2 weeks.