We can’t eat the spiky-coated horse chestnuts scattered all over the piazza. Nor the mushrooms that suddenly billow like bald umbrellas at the base of the nearby trees. Both, however, are daily reminders that now is the time that their sweet and edible siblings can be bought at the market and in shops. Then there is Augusto’s cabinet at his restaurant La Torricella, filled, as it is every year, with chestnuts from trees on his land in the neighbouring region of Abruzzo. Only this isn’t every year.
Once I have seen them, chestnuts call out to me at this time of year. Maybe because I know that a kilo, scored around their curve and roasted until the nut tries to escape, a bottle of red wine and a bar of chocolate is such a balanced meal, with no washing up. I might be contradicting previous columns in being undecided as to what is best – roasting chestnuts in a frying pan (which requires a lot of shaking) or in the oven (which requires moderate shaking) – so I swing between the two. Either way, I tip the hot, roasted chestnuts into a brown paper bag, then wrap it in a tea towel for 15 minutes, in which time the heat turns to steam, which eases the shells away and makes them easier to peel.
Red wine also makes chestnuts easier to peel. Red wine for the peeler to drink, that is (though there are, in fact, several recipes for chestnuts boiled in red wine from Abruzzo). The enthusiasm you can summon for peeling nuts when they are for immediate consumption is quite incredible. As is the speed at which one can do so: it’s similar to what one friend calls the pistachio race – don’t stop until the bowl is empty.
It is hard to summon anything near the enthusiasm, or speed, for chestnut peeling when they are for a recipe, however. Which is where vacuum-packed chestnuts step in. Resembling tiny brains pressed against tight packets, they are the most brilliantly useful thing – for soup, stews, stuffings, cakes and puddings. Chestnut flour, too, is a brilliant store-cupboard ingredient, for adding (cautiously) to pasta dough, cakes and bread.
Today, though, a soup inspired by a chestnut, mushroom and potato soup we ate in Abruzzo several years ago (at the same meal, incidentally, as the mystic cherry liquor). Chestnuts function like beans in soup – that is, they are soft and substantial, but also floury – which can be turned up a notch by blending them, or some of them, to thicken the consistency. Porcini bring two things: their rich, leathery flesh and a well-flavoured broth, both a great match for chestnuts (what grows together, goes together). Porcini also love potatoes, which themselves are rarely a bad idea in soup.
You could add some pasta to this soup in the last minutes of cooking – orzo, broken tagliatelle, or maltagliati (offcuts of fresh egg pasta), though the exact cooking time will depend on the shape. Otherwise, croutons fried in a mix of butter and olive oil, or toast rubbed with garlic and zigzagged with olive oil are also good. As is a bottle of red wine.
Chestnut, porcini and potato soup
20g dried porcini
3 tbsp olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and diced
1 large potato, peeled and diced
250g peeled chestnuts (use vacuum-packed ones, for ease)
Salt and black pepper
Soak the porcini in 500ml warm water for 30 minutes, then drain, reserving the soaking liquid, and roughly chop the porcini.
In a soup pan, warm the olive oil and butter, then fry the onion gently until soft. Add the potato, chestnuts and a pinch of salt, and cook for a minute more.
Make the porcini soaking liquid up to 1.2 litres by adding warm water, then add to the pan, along with another pinch of salt. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and leave to cook for 20 minutes.
If you want, take out half the soup, blend smooth, then return to the pan, to thicken. Taste and adjust the seasoning to your liking, and serve with toast.