IT was Vienna, 2009. The winter wind howled down streets and seeped its way through every layer of clothing and hit our bones. The air was fresh and crisp but it carried icy snowflakes which struck like a million tiny knives. A daggy beanie, a million layers of clothing and the absolutely beautiful sights were no relief to my raw skin.
Christmas was all around us but there was a sweet, toasty smell in the air that just could not be ignored. Like hounds to meat, we followed our noses and joined a short line gathered in front of an open-grill barbecue. Pops and crackles could be heard as smitten people walked away with white paper cones full of roasted chestnuts. Excitement cemented our place in the line and we had forgotten about the bone-chilling cold.
As a Queenslander I hadn't seen chestnuts around so (I admit) they had always been a little food fantasy of mine. I yearned for those heart-warming little chestnuts after my European holiday and I have since relived the memories… without the cute cone, sadly.
The chestnut season in Australia runs from March to July so it's a great time to track some down. I still spot the sweet, soft-fleshed nut (pictured) at my local farmers' market and have seen them in supermarkets. With the season coming to an end I was preparing myself to go cold-chestnut until next year but my recent trip to a specialty grocer bought a welcome surprise. I discovered chestnut puree (pictured), whole canned chestnuts and a chestnut spread made from pureed chestnuts, vanilla and cream. The cans sit in three perfect rows on the shelf with Product of France printed proudly across each of the tres chic labels.
I was immediately filled with a nostalgic sense of excitement; the very one that pulled me out of the cold in Europe and the one that drives this ongoing food fantasy. With a can of chestnut puree in my hand and some whole chestnuts from the local farmers' markets, I put my (metaphorical) chefs hat on.
From the puree I baked some glorious Chestnut Puddings (recipe up Friday) and scored the top of the chestnuts to roast. Apparently I forgot to score one chestnut because there was an explosion in my oven. Shreds of chestnut clung to the roof of the oven as I rescued the remaining chestnuts, figuring they were probably well roasted. I have still only found half the shell of the culprit and tiny pieces of chestnut debris burn every time I use the oven, but I love it.