An exceptional year for chestnuts as the forest floor is littered with their bigger than average fruits. As the leaves fall so do the nuts and they need to be harvested almost immediately, at least before the squirrels relieve us of such a marvellous burden.
The native Castanea Sativa grows almost everywhere within the forest producing its sweet and dainty nuts while a few japanese immigrants of Castanea Crenata brought into the area by two intrepid basque monks, grow their larger and flourier fruit further to the east.
You need a good pair or gloves to sort the chestnuts from their leafy blanket, a good rub of a boot to split an unopened hedgehog-like husk and again the gloves to extract that precious nut inside.
Once in the basket, they have to be dealt with as soon as possible as their water level is super-high making them perish quickly.
As I have a husband who loves eating chestnuts more than anything else in the natural world, his enthusiasm has no bounds. He can spend endless hours making himself adorable by knicking or cutting that sacred cross through the outer skin, boiling or roasting them for a couple of minutes before burning any traces of print from his fingertips, peeling them.
His cousins have come visiting from Aubrac where forests of chestnuts thrive and I've watched in envy as they peel chestnuts faster than carrots.
There as here, where chestnuts are so bountiful and were once such a core part of local life, a common insult for the poor is "un castanier" or chestnut eater. Its always the way with food that is plentiful. Nobody was ever insulted for eating other precious harvests like a fine porcini or morel mushroom.
I myself grew up with only its distant relative, the horse chestnut which has little to commend itself except as a most damaging weapon called the "conker" for pre-pubic boys with shifting testosterone levels.
In comparison the real chestnut is so versatile whether savoury or sweet making some of the best soups, stuffings, game stews and the more decadent cakes and marron glacé and in Mailhos, what would be do without its honey....
Chestnut and Chorizo Gnocchi
500g Desiree or other floury Potatoes
1 large Egg Yolk
75g Plain Flour
400g cooked and peeled Chestnuts
100g spicy Chorizo
1 medium red Onion, chopped
2 Garlic cloves, sliced
1 fresh hot Chili, finely sliced
2 tablespoons of finely chopped Sage
75ml Red Wine
200g fresh, chopped Tomatoes
Salt and freshly ground Pepper
12 whole Sage leaves
Cook the potatoes in a large pan of boiling, salted water. Drain and peel when warm. Put the potatoes through a mouli or mash with a potato masher. Fold in the egg yolk, flour and semolina and season to taste. Work together with your hands to obtain a dough. Divide into 5 pieces and roll out each piece to the diameter of your finger and cut into lengths of 2cm. Indent each piece with the back of a fork so they will pick up the sauce better.
Slice the chorizo into 1cm slices. Melt the butter in a thick bottomed saucepan and fry the chorizo until lightly browned. Remove the chorizo and keep warm. Add the onion, garlic, chili and chopped sage to the pan. Cook gently for 20 minutes until the onions are soft. Pour in the wine and raise the heat. Cook until all the wine has evaporated. Add the tomatoes and the chestnuts and cook over a low heat for another 20 minutes. Add the chorizo and cook for another 10 minutes. Taste and season.
Meanwhile fry the sage leaves in olive oil and drain on some kitchen paper. Cook the gnocchi in batches in a generous amount of boiling, salted water. Serve with the sauce and parmesan and sage leaves.
(pour les Bearnais, je serai au Salon du Livre à Pau le 9 novembre à partir de 14h pour signer mon livre...)