This is a recipe which starts with a good walk! In October it is impossible to walk in the woods down here in the south-west of France without treading on prickly round sweet chestnuts. But as I now live in a small appartement with no fireplace in which to roast chestnuts, I decided to make Crème de châtaignes or Chestnut Spread instead. I had discovered that the shop-bought version which they sell here in Albi bears no comparison with the home-made version (I’d been given a pot by a neighbour). It was bland and floury and it was only when I’d tasted Babette’s Crème de châtaignes that I understood why it’s worth the effort. But be warned – it is an effort!
Go out in the woods and gather the fattest, biggest, shiniest sweet chestnuts you can find. Ignore small ones (too fiddly to peel) and dry-looking ones (too old). The best taste comes from using the freshest you can find and cooking them as soon as you can. Here there are chestnut woods everywhere and it’s relatively easy to gather four or five kilos in a couple of hours. If you don’t have access to chestnut woods, the next best thing is bought chestnuts – but again, select carefully.
“In London parks, you have a mixture of sweet chestnut trees and horse chestnut trees. The latter provide ‘conkers’ for games, but are mildly poisonous to eat. To be absolutely sure you are picking the edible version, only take those that are still in their husks, which for the sweet chestnut are spiky and green in comparison to the conker husk which is smooth and green.”- Judi
Crème de châtaignes – Preparation time – several hours!
2 kilos of peeled chestnuts
1.5 kilos of sugar for every 2 kilos of peeled chestnuts
2 glasses of water
1 vanilla pod
6 x 500g jam pots with lids/covers (well washed & rinsed)
Preheat the oven to 110 C
Using a sharp knife, cut a cross in the bottom of each chestnut and put them in a very large saucepan. Cover with cold water and bring to the boil, then let the chestnuts simmer for 10 minutes.
Now tip the water away and begin the tiresome process of peeling the chestnuts – namely, removing the thick brown outer shell and as much of the pale brown inner skin as possible. Two of you doing it is more fun than just one – stick on some good music, and have a glass of wine while you do it.
When you’ve finished, weigh the peeled chestnuts – this gives you the quantity of sugar you will need to use – see above. Put them back in the cleaned saucepan, cover with warm water this time and bring to the boil. Then let them simmer at a steady bubble, stirring the chestnuts round from time to time so they cook evenly to the point that they can be easily crushed – depending on the quantity this can take up to 20 minutes.
Drain them. Then pass them through a sieve or better still, a mouli, and you will end up with a large bowl of floury puree. Keep this warm whilst you make the syrup.
Place the sugar in a large heavy-bottomed casserole or jam pan – add a couple of glasses of water to the sugar and heat and stir until it has turned syrupy – but don’t let it caramelise! Add the chestnut puree and a vanilla pod split open. The heat needs to be high enough to make the mixture bubble fairly energetically but not boil furiously.
Stir the puree – and then keep stirring. If the puree sticks it will burn and ruin the taste. Depending on the quantity, it will take anything from 20 to 45 minutes to thicken up. After the first 20 minutes remove the vanilla pod or the flavour will be too strong. The ‘jam’ is ready when you have a thickish shiny consistency that can be poured into pots.
Have your glass pots ready and waiting – sparkling clean and heated up on a metal tray in the oven to 110C for at least 20 minutes. Pour the puree in leaving a good 1cm clear. The French fashion of sealing the pots seems to work well – screw tight the lid and turn the pots upside down until they are cool. This seems to sterilise and seal all in one!
I eat it on toast for breakfast, in pancakes (delicious), and have also added it to a recipe for chocolate fondant pots. I’ll be putting it in the chocolate log cake for Christmas and giving pots away to good friends as presents. Note ‘good’ friends – it really did take too long to just give away to ‘all and sundry’ – but it does taste heavenly!