Eating Wild Chestnuts

November 2, 2012 § 6 Comments

N. loves dead ends.  Every sign that warns there’s no reason to go down a road, means I’m about to get forced on a detour. I was suspicious at first of the sheer effort of walking down a road you know isn’t going to work, but at the end of every unwelcoming turnaround there’s something valuable.  An old, tottering house; a bush shaped like an elephant; a lost park.  I’m starting to see the light — or rather, see charm in the dark, wet places where streets go to die.

We try to go to a nearby garage sale every weekend, just for the chance to walk the neighborhood and stare at people’s porches and lawns.  Headed back from allowing me to buy about 20 pairs of 80′s earrings, N. spotted one.  This particular dead end I grumbled over.  It was settled unpleasantly at the far-off bottom of a hill.  As we started down, N. began lecturing on the dream of living in houses no one has an excuse to walk past.  For an extrovert he’s surprisingly into hedgerows.

We found the “dead end” was a false advertisement — “Jesus, it turns into a bike path” N. exhaled in disgust.  I’m not clear how a dirt path through the light, idyllic woods that spread out past the houses was a crime against neighborhood privacy, but any excuse to ditch a dead end is a good one.

As we retraced our damp steps, a car pulled past us and parked in front of something that looked to be more 3-boat garage than domicile.  Out spread a grandmother, mother, and daughter, the latter scuffing her feet sulkily on the pavement.  I wondered why they were dragging their feet on getting into their house — if that was a house?  Or if they lived in land-boats?   Ugh, this hill was a bother.  N. craned his head back.  “Hey – there must be some sort of delicacy there,” he observed. “They’re collecting something.”

They didn’t live there at all. I made a quick U-Turn.  Under the tree were large, green, prickly fruits, which they were rolling under their shoes.  I’d spent a good portion of the morning examining these same prickly things, unable to find one the squirrels hadn’t trophied.  “What are you collecting?” I half-shouted a few times, trying not to look like a jerk hollering at a nice Asian family.  Finally the mother stepped forward and smiled and opened her hands.  There were fat, smooth nuts there in brown and green. “Chestnuts,” she pointed to the green ones, “these aren’t ready yet.”  I bent down to pick up one of the empty shells that had the little, deflated brown seeds I’d seen this morning.  She tut-tutted.  “That’s no good — and you’ll prick yourself.”  The little brown smudges I pulled out didn’t even look related to the lovely nuts she had found.

We thanked them and skipped off – mystery solved, wa-hoo!  It was only a few more blocks home, and we spent the way kicking at every prickly pouch we found – empty, empty, empty.  Near our house was another prickly-pod tree.  We were so excited we ran up to it and tried to pick up the little pouches – “Arghh!” – and dropped them in pain.  She was right.  We tried to imitate how they’d rolled them under their shoes, feeling for nuts inside, and then cracking the pouch with our feet.  Still empty.

Opening Chestnut Burrsgingerly opening Chestnut burrs with our shoes

“Hey!  I found one!”  N. held up a fat nut, ecstatic.  “The green prickly things are fresher.” Sure enough, some of the green burrs still had something in them – often one had been pulled out, but there would be a second nestled inside.  “Oh, and there’s some over here!” ones that had fallen out of the shell, unmolested, blending into the dirt.  In ten minutes we each had a full handful, and had never felt so rich.  Ah, how scarcity makes the heart pound!

our haul of fresh chestnutsN. is very excited about the Chestnut haul

We about tripped over ourselves the last block bubbling home to show everyone the nuts, which, it turned out, aren’t as cool if you didn’t just learn what they were and find them all where you thought none were left.  We looked like the nuts, and the nuts looked, well, inedible.

Now, how do you eat a chestnut?  We sang Chestnuts roasting on an open fire… over and over again…but decided not to risk an open fire.  It turns out the theory is about the same.  You cut an X in the skin of the nut across the flat part.  Lay them out on a tray and cook them at 425 for about half an hour.  You can see the skin start to peel back as they bake.

Chestnuts, X'ed, ready to bake in the ovennuts X’ed and ready to bake

When they’re done, you peel off the rest of the skin yourself, before they cool and it hardens.  N. was a natural.  I crumbled them and had to keep sneaking the mess I was making into my mouth.

“Havf you thried thes?” I turned to N., worried.  He was just swallowing one himself.

“Yeah.  They’re kind of…bland.”

There was very little nutty about chestnuts.  Their texture was related to chalky but altogether less dry.  Their flavor was unexpectedly light; a little bitter.  We frowned.

The more I tried to peel, the more I destroyed and had to scoop up into my mouth to avoid making a mess.  And you know what?  I think you just need to adjust to them.  Four or five in, and they were delicious.  Suddenly sweet.  I was dipping my hand back into the bowl all night for more soft, white something.  It definitely has a taste all its own.

Cooked and peeled chestnutsbaked, peeled, and ready to eat

I used to think I saw the homeless, the dejected, walking under that tree.  Always dragging their feet, always Asian, always clutching a bag.  Now I know those bags aren’t for lugging around half-soaked possessions – they’re for chestnuts!  They’re not shuffling because they’re derranged – they’re cracking nut cases!  Suddenly I see them every day, every time I go past, lingering to pick up secret things.  How many people are roaming the streets of Portland, harvesting chestnuts?  Is there territory?  Are they for sale, or do they go straight to the family dinner table?

a fresh chestnut, still in the burr

Most importantly of all – what I can’t stop thinking:  what other secrets foods do they know, that I don’t?

{ On this note, see my follow-up story on eating ginkgo nuts a few days later. }

{Before you eat chestnuts, learn the edible varieties here.}

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§ 6 Responses to Eating Wild Chestnuts

  • Zan says:

    Be very careful, because if they look like this:
    http://brilliantbotany.tumblr.com/post/21497595087/this-is-a-conker-or-horse-chestnut-from-the

    –it is poisonous. They grow on the hill above my apartment in SW Portland.

    • anudibranch says:

      Thanks! I didn’t know they grew around here.

      As far as I can tell the best way to differentiate them is the edible chestnuts have a burr-like pod – lots of tiny furry spikes – and inedible horse chestnuts have fewer spikes.

      I’ll add a note in the post, cheers!

      • Zan says:

        *grins* The SW hills are covered in the pervasive species, because at the turn of the last century, silly immigrants decided they were nummy and it’d be cool to litter the hillside. They’re about the only trees left between Terwilliger and Barbur, at least in my neck of the woods. I have a couple of neighbors who insist they’re fine, and no matter how many webpages I show them (you are right, the fewer spikes = poisonous), they think it’s fine. And then they feel cruddy for the month of December. lol

  • What a great story for the harvest season. I grew up here and have seen chestnuts but never collected them. I may try it next time. And yes, I’ll make sure they’re not horse chestnuts!

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