There is something very special about the chestnut (castagne) season in Northern Italy. It starts at the end of September when the first spiky green shells fall from the trees and within a few weeks the floors of the woods that surround our house are strewn, the shells bursting open to reveal the burnished brown fruits inside. There is something completely addictive about foraging for chestnuts. Even though I have bowls of them sitting in my kitchen waiting to be cooked and the peeling makes my fingers sore I just can’t resist picking them, returning from every walk with my pockets bursting at the seams. So expect a fair few chestnut recipes over coming weeks! This one combines the rich flavours of roasted chestnuts with the sweet charred flesh of some beautiful golden squash picked from my garden.
A couple of medium squash (any type) or a small pumpkin
A large handful of roasted chestnuts (approx. 500g with shells but allow for some bad ones)
Two cloves of garlic
Quarter of a grated nutmeg
A vegetable stock cube
Salt and pepper to taste
Parsley to garnish
The first job is to roast the chestnuts and squash. Roasting adds huge amounts of flavour to pretty much everything and it’s my go-to method for almost all vegetables, whether it’s tomatoes for a sauce or green beans, broccoli or courgettes as a side dish.
Halve the squash, scoop out the seeds and place them on a baking tray with a little oil and plenty of salt and ground black pepper. Pop them into a hot oven for around 30 minutes or until the squash starts to collapse and the skin starts to char. My squash released quite a lot of liquid which can go into the soup with the scooped out flesh.
Next, cut a small slit into each of the chestnuts with a sharp knife. This will stop them from exploding and coating your oven with powdery chestnut mess so don’t skip this step even though it’s tedious and boring when you have as many chestnuts as I do! Look out for soft chestnuts or those with a small hole…this is the entry point for the nut weevils to lay their eggs and mean that the chestnut is not edible as it most likely has a nut weevil larva inside eating its way through the contents.
Place the chestnuts on a baking tray and pop them in a hot oven for around 20 minutes. There are ready when the skins start to split. These ones were roasted in the fire so they are more charred and blackened than if you cook them in the oven (and also have a lovely smoky taste) but you get the idea!
From what I can tell there is no particular art to peeling the chestnuts. I’ve seen some recipes suggesting that it’s easier if you soak them in water before putting them in the oven but I’ve tried that before and it didn’t seem to make much difference. Others suggest keeping the chestnuts warm under a tea towel so the skins don’t tighten. In my experience the chestnuts sometimes pop out whole – which is very satisfying – but mostly you just have to get them out however you can, including with a blunt knife if necessary. What you end up with will probably look a bit like this…
Chop the onion and fry off with some butter in a pan, adding the crushed garlic cloves after 5 minutes. Add the soft flesh of the squash, the roasted peeled chestnuts and about a litre of vegetable stock. Season with salt, pepper, and about quarter of a whole nutmeg grated into the pan. Cover and leave to simmer for around 20 minutes. Stir occasionally but watch out for boiling soup bubbles when you do!
Remove from the heat, cool and blend until smooth and velvety. Heat back through, adding extra stock or a splash of milk if the soup is too thick and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Serve with a swirl of yoghurt and some chopped parsley.