Once upon a time, when I lived in a small Belgian town, the coming of fall meant long Sunday afternoon walks along the narrow cobblestone roads lined with chestnut trees.
While the weather was often damp and rainy by the end of October, and the color in the trees usually was only in a brown range, I loved tromping through the leaves in my olive green rain boots and shiny yellow “ciré” (oilskin raincoat).
Looking for chestnuts would always add an extra element to the mix. Often, the prickly burrs were laying all around, and all I had to do was smash them with my foot to open them and find the shiny chestnuts inside. After collecting a bagful, we would take them home to roast.
First, we would slit them with a paring knife, then lay them on a pan and roast them until they were tender. As soon as they came out of the oven, we would gather around the table and peel them gingerly, trying not to burn our fingers. And after all that work, we ate them warm, savoring the earthy, sweet flavor — a little bit like tasting a piece of autumn woods.
This was a memory I had forgotten after moving to this country. Until the day I was hiking on a trail in the backwoods of Normandy, France, and I came upon chestnuts laying on the ground. The memory hit me so hard, I started crying. I was so happy to see chestnuts.
And the story continues. One day, here in Goshen, I came across some chestnuts. And after tracking them, I discovered a farming family in Middlebury who owned chestnut trees.
So I have a new tradition. Every year, when this season rolls around, Darrel comes to me or I go to Darrel’s and I get my supply of chestnuts. This year, I stopped in on a rainy day, and Darrel and I tromped around his chestnut tree. The burrs were falling off the tree as he told me about its history. That tree has been around for almost one hundred years!
I think I like everything about chestnuts. The trees have beautiful shiny leaves, the burrs look soft even though prickly and then when you open them, there lie the shiny brown chestnuts. It’s like finding a treasure. Then, I take them home, and handle them lovingly until they are ready to eat. And then the flavor.
Food memories are some of the strongest I have. What food memories bring you pleasure? Maybe you can try chestnuts and add another food to your memory.
Take each chestnut and make a deep slit on its flat side. Put on a pan and roast at 375 degrees until tender, about 20 to 25 minutes. You can test one by pinching it. Peel shortly after they come out. You can wrap them in a towel to keep them warm as you peel them.
I often use roasted chestnuts in this stuffing.
- ¾ cups chopped onion
- 1½ cups chopped celery (you can use the leaves also)
- 1 cup butter
- 9 cups bread cubes (I often use a sourdough or French country)
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1½ tbsp. fresh sage leaves, chopped
- 1 tbsp. fresh thyme, chopped
- ½ tsp. pepper
- 1½ cups roasted chestnuts, peeled and cut in half
- Cook and stir onion and celery in the butter in a skillet until onion is tender, about 10 minutes.
- In a bowl, place half of the bread crumbs. Stir in the onion mixture and then add the rest of the ingredients. Place in a greased baking dish and cover.
- Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook a little it longer. Or use it to stuff your Thanksgiving turkey.