Friday, November 02, 2007

Chestnut Nostalgia

It is one of my comfort foods. Resistant to cultivation outside its native geography, and forced to unequivocally mark the arrival of autumn and autumn alone, the edible chestnut is something to look forward to this time of year if you are lucky enough to live in its environs. It is not just a great snack on its own -- sweet but not a bit cloying like a persimmon, that other wonderful autumn fruit, can be. It is healthy and nourishing if simply roasted or boiled. It takes me way, way back to the days of chilly legs poking out of my scratchy tweed coat with the velvet cuffs, standing on frosty cobblestones for a parent to hand me the warm paper cone of singed chestnuts, with the aroma of charcoal and burnt peel wafting around us. The farinata of chestnut taken with a glass of red wine in Florence on days prior to Christmas as the temperature plunged is a memory of adulthood.

So while in Japan last month, I was delighted to learn that there the chestnut is even more evident in autumn than in Italy. It was difficult to find them roasted, but no problem finding chestnut as a sweet paste in mochi, as soft serve ice cream with tiny nuggets of chestnut meat, as filling for a fist-sized pancake, as flour for cookies or crackers, as a glacee or in the center of chocolates. Every sweet vendor -- and there are many -- had their own version of the seasonal treat. What heaven. This cake is an example of what I encountered, even if unfortunately I did not get around to sampling this one being quite sated already with that day's intake of chestnut wafers.

Luckily, less than one week after returning from chestnut land, I stumbled upon a menu item here in Portland at the well-regarded Giorgio's that compensated for this area's relative lack of a chestnut season: home-made chestnut tortellini in an apple and celery coulis. Delicate, light, the sweetness of each ingredient nicely balanced, the dish is highly recommended. Go now as chestnut season will soon be over.


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