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Chestnuts peeping out from under Halloween colored leaves is one of my favorite sights of Fall.  They are the proof positive that Autumn has arrived, as it has here in blustery Bristol.  We don’t really get them in the southern piedmont of North Carolina, so they will forever remind me of trips to cooler climes where fall is fall and not just a hurricane-doused extension of summer.  I got lucky this year with my chestnut sightings as we spent our honeymoon in Maine where the chestnuts literally pile up in the gutters along the sidewalks because there are too many for the squirrels and other chestnut hunters (like, ahem, me) to collect.

Unfortunately, here in Bristol it appears that we’ve come to the end of the chestnuts season.  On my walk on the Downs today (that blessed oasis of greenspace that overlook’s Bristol’s otherwise urban topography), I noticed that almost all the “conkers,” as British school children here call them, had been picked over, and left behindwere only the smashed shells that had formerly encased them.

 


I'm not the only one who is inspired by chestnuts in the Fall. This shop incorporated them into their display window.

 

Now for all you fellow non-Brits, let me explain.  Over here, the fallen chestnuts you see in a park or along the side of a road are good for one thing and one thing only: playing conkers.  When my husband, and just about every other Brit here, sees a chestnut the one thing on their minds is finding the hardest, beastiest kernel, with the most potential for beating all the other conkers in the school yard.  The actual game isn’t all that complicated: You tie a bit of string through a hole in your chestnut and take turns flicking your conker against your oponent’s. Basic enough.  The art, I’m told, comes in how the conker is chosen and prepared for battle.  To hear Luke explain the process, you’d think he was performing a sacred task.  You must find the biggest, roundest conker, he says.  Now for drilling the hole: how do you do it?  Is it better to use an electric drill or whittle it by hand?  How can you be sure of the interior quality of the conker?  Will it harden sufficiently when it’s dried?  Not forgeting that it should be just soft enough to withstand the force of the oponent conker.

It’s all very complicated.  And foreign.  Did I mention I didn’t grow up playing this game?  Now, when I see a chestnut, I think of this.

Hand holding roasted chestnuts in paper bag

Mmmm.  Hot, steamy, buttery roasted chestnuts. In France these  marrons grillés have a kind of magnetic pull on my, already thin wallet. As soon as the first Alpine wind swept across Provence in Autumn, you could be sure the marrons  vendors are stationed on every main street corner, their wood fired grills tempting you with the sweet smells of the roasting chestnuts.

Roasted Chestnuts are roasted thusly:

It’s best to cook them over an open fire, preferably wood. But if you don’t have one to hand, an oven works fine too.

Preheat the oven to 400* (200*C).

Carefully cut an X on the top of each chestnut. This allows the steam to escape; otherwise, they’ll explode!

Spread the nuts on a baking sheet or on the grill (over a fire) cut side up. (Cooking them cut side down will ensure extra crispiness, but this may burn the exposed flesh — it’s up to you).  Sprinkle lightly with water.

Roast for 15-20 minutes until the kernels are tender and the shells come off easily. Remember to move them around often so they don’t burn.

When the chestnuts are ready, you may rap them in a towel and squeeze them to break the shells, but this is only an extra kindness to your guests. Alternately, serve them piping hot in a newspaper cone and let your guests get to work peeling back the lovely, hot skins.

Enjoy!

Tomorrow I’ll post a little more about the game of  “conkers.”

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"The purpose of art is not a rarified, intellectual distillate -- it is life, intensified, brilliant life." ~ Alain Arias-Misson

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