Page 51 - Vallet Table - Spring 2020
P. 51

                                AYEAR AGO, IN ISSUE 84 OF
this magazine, I wrote about the near-total disappearance of the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) from Eastern forests in the first half of the 20th century. A lethal fungus on Asian chestnut seedlings imported from Japan caused this devastating loss.
A surprising number of people responded to my article. Some remarked how shocking it was that such an important tree which had flourished for 40 million years in North America could, in so short a time, be almost entirely erased — by a mere fungus! If given to pondering the fragility of life or the impermanence of all things, the demise of this sovereign among trees would surely provide fodder.
But one long-time customer at our farmers’ market stand, a woman named Valerie, responded to my story more affirmatively and offered to open my eyes to a world of chestnuts beyond the all-but-vanished American species. She invited my wife, Flavia, and me to her annual chestnut dinner — billed as a celebration of the cultural and culinary history of chestnuts, albeit mostly chestnuts from Europe rather than North America. We happily agreed to join her and other guests at her Brooklyn home.
The dinner would take place on Saturday, November 9 — as close to St. Martin’s Day (November 11) as was practical. It is a long-standing custom across much of Catholic Europe to serve newly pressed wine and the season’s harvest of chestnuts prepared in a variety of tantalizing ways on St. Martin’s Day.
The evening with Valerie and her other guests was memorable — fine wine, fine company, and, most appropriately, chestnuts featured in each course on the menu, excepting only the beet-and-endive salad. First, we were treated to a slice (I might have helped myself to two) of chestnut cake made with chestnut flour, water, olive oil, pine nuts, and rosemary, served with
a wedge of ricotta salata. The flavor of the cake was mildly sweet, nutty, earthy — highly edible. In Italy it is known as Castagnaccio.
The main course, Kestaneil Lanaha Domnasi, a Turkish recipe, consisted of cabbage leaves stuffed with chestnuts, along with short-grain rice, onions, garlic, parsley, dill, and ground allspice berries.
Dessert came in the form of a Spanish dish: Flan de castanas y chocolate, otherwise known as chocolate
chestnut flan. This delicacy was smooth and dense
in texture, pleasantly sweet, chocolatey, and quite moreish of flavor. Drizzled over it was a light caramel syrup. Fittingly, the entire meal was served on a fine- grained chestnut wood table.
Before the evening was done, Valerie gave us some pointers on acquiring chestnuts in New York. Proper storage is critical — they should be kept cool at all times (not all retailers are on top of this, so beware!). When buying chestnuts, make sure they have some weight to them. If on the light side, they are probably dried out and past their prime. Also avoid chestnuts that move inside their shells when you shake them.
If willing to go the extra mile, give each nut a light squeeze. It should feel firm with just a little bit of give. When you get them home, fresh, unpeeled chestnuts should be kept in a folded paper bag or lidded container in the refrigerator. Even then, their storage life is limited to a few weeks.
Valerie prefers imported Italian chestnuts which
are large, have good flavor, and arrive in markets in November. In lesser quantities, French and Portuguese chestnuts can also be found in select New York City markets. She is not a big fan of Asian chestnuts, which she feels are more difficult to peel and not as flavorful.
In November, my wife was surprised to come across a burlap sack of large chestnuts imported from Italy
in a local supermarket in the Town of Warwick. Using Valerie’s selection criteria, she chose a couple of dozen shiny, brown specimens. We roasted them in the oven for 20 minutes at 425°F. I happily ate several

   49   50   51   52   53