Ode to a Chestnut…

blurred background chestnuts close up color
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Back to blogging, and back to writing. Be patient with me – since moving to France my fingers have been slow to get moving across the keyboard or notebook. Things are warming up though, as the days get colder and, hopefully, you will hear a little more from me in the coming weeks. It is about time, to be honest…

How often do you literally feel food fall out of the sky? Hear it dropping yards from you, heavily, making the ground vibrate slightly as it collides with the earth?

Before we moved here to Huelgoat, in Brittany, as an urban dwelling Brit I have to say it didn’t happen to me that often, unless bird poo is in some way edible. It may bring us luck, but nutritional value? I think not.

Today I walked 200 yards up our road to where the trees of the Foret d’Huelgoat take over from the houses, and was, once again, treading on a thick carpet of prickly fruit – the cases surrounding the sweet chestnuts that recent winds have blown to the ground on the edge of the road and over the familiar tracks of the dog walk I regularly take with trusty canine companion Teddy. The forest floor is now more akin to the ocean, covered with sea urchins and I am glad of my chunky soled boots as I venture under the canopy. I need a hard hat too, it turns out. Gusts of wind bring down more tightly clustered cocoons, and even as the world around me stills, I can hear the ‘thunk’ ‘thunk’ as the spiky natural harvest continues.

I have never really eaten chestnuts – they are more popular here than in the UK – and always associate them with stalls at Christmas markets, adding to the atmosphere with smell rather than taste. But the nuts are so beautiful; dark brown, shiny and firm and impossible to resist. I fill my pockets from the open cases, even venturing to prise apart the teeth of the unopened ones. As I type this I realise those tiny spines have left their mark; the tips of my fingers sore over the ‘d’ and the ‘a’… and the touch ID on my phone doesn’t seem to recognise me any more.

Thanks to the wonders of Facebook, I have been offered lots of advice about the best way to cook and use the nuts. You can boil, roast or microwave with slightly different results in terms of appearance and flavour. However, whichever method you use they are terribly fiddly to peel and my first attempts filled me with guilt as a tender kernel fell apart or stayed firmly welded to the shell. It feels an offence against nature to throw away the remnants in frustration at their unyielding character and my ineptitude, but they are unusable. I have tried again as I can’t help but think skill comes with practice and a discussion with my friend Cornelia revealed a method that seems to suit me. Soaking for an hour, then scoring just under the paler coloured ‘top’ before roasting for about 20 minutes results in a far greater ratio of success. Burned fingers crossed then.

Pablo Neruda 0011_oleo 004.jpgAs is usually the case when I get to writing, I hunt down a poem I enjoy with at least a link to the subject I am working on. It is a strategy that has introduced me to work I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered, and today that is definitely the case. Pablo Neruda was once a great favourite of mine, but he and I have been strangers for a while and this is one I had forgotten, or hadn’t read.

Ode To a Chestnut on the Ground by Pablo Neruda

From bristly foliage
you fell
complete, polished wood, gleaming mahogany,
as perfect
as a violin newly
born of the treetops,
that falling
offers its sealed-in gifts,
the hidden sweetness
that grew in secret
amid birds and leaves,
a model of form,
kin to wood and flour,
an oval instrument
that holds within it
intact delight, an edible rose.
In the heights you abandoned
the sea-urchin burr
that parted its spines
in the light of the chestnut tree;
through that slit
you glimpsed the world,
bursting with syllables,
the heads of boys
and girls,
grasses stirring restlessly,
smoke rising, rising.
You made your decision,
chestnut, and leaped to earth,
burnished and ready,
firm and smooth
as the small breasts
of the islands of America.
You fell,
you struck
the ground,
nothing happened,
the grass
still stirred, the old
chestnut sighed with the mouths
of a forest of trees,
a red leaf of autumn fell,
resolutely, the hours marched on
across the earth.
Because you are
a seed,
chestnut tree, autumn, earth,
water, heights, silence
prepared the germ,
the floury density,
the maternal eyelids
that buried will again
open toward the heights
the simple majesty of foliage,
the dark damp plan
of new roots,
the ancient but new dimensions
of another chestnut tree in the earth.

As a vegetarian, that ‘floury density’ and sweet chestnut nut roast is calling to me, and I have read lovely recipes for cakes and soups that I can use my now frozen foraged forest feast in. Here is a particularly good link to the BBC GoodFood website and an article simply entitled ‘What to do with chestnuts’.  Keep it clean now my friends.

3 Replies to “Ode to a Chestnut…”

  1. Carol has been doing the Brussels mix for years Suzie! It even encourages me to eat some Brussels so it must be good…

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