27 years ago, when we first moved up to 'The Hills', having a chestnut tree in your backyard was like money in the bank. For a couple of years the proceeds of chestnut sales to an inner-city Italian grocer and at a roadside stall even paid our council rates. You can still see groves of chestnut trees all over the Dandenong Ranges, and around ANZAC Day convoys of cars still come up to to forage for them, but the advent of huge orchards in North-Eastern Victoria as well as cheap imports eventually drove the price of chestnuts down to a point where the return was outstripped by the tedious (and painful) harvesting. I was never a huge fan of the nut, we made chestnut soup a few times and David likes to roast them and eat them.
This week I was tempted to revisit chestnuts by a recipe in this week's Epicure for Torta di Castagna e Cioccolato (Chocolate and Chestnut Torte) from the River Cafe Cookbook . Having bought 1 kilo of chestnuts from a roadside stall in Olinda ($10 - not much more than they were 27 years ago) I set aside a morning to prepare them, and just as well as I had forgotten what a tedious task it is. Following Stephanie's advice in The Cook's Companion I first slit a cross in the chestnuts and then boiled them for 15 minutes. After this I spent an hour peeling off the outer and inner skins ( periodically replacing the pot back on the heat since as the chestnut cools the inner skin clings on to the nut), ending up with split thumbnails and very sore fingers and around 600gm of meat.
Thankfully the cake itself was easy to prepare. The recipe called for the chestnuts, chocolate and almonds to be coarsely chopped in the food processor which made the resulting cake textured and chunky, with pieces of chocolate through it rather than an overall chocolateyness. The resulting torte was very moist, took about 15 minutes longer to cook at 150 than the recipe indicated and had a complex, nutty flavour to it. The article accompanying the recipe said that the lemon zest was the key, but I felt that it rather dominated the end product. Probably not one that I would rush back to making, but it made a nice addition to the Mother's Day repast.