NUTS TO YOU
This is the season for nuts, in the northern hemisphere, and for feasting celebratorily. Many years ago in the Italian part of Switzerland, I chanced upon a festival of roasting chestnuts in a forested area. Large fires, lined up one after the other along the sides of a road. The purpose, I later found out, besides celebrating the bounty, was to insure a large cache of dried chestnuts for use in winter dishes. In those days chestnuts were still a staple food.
Polenta was made from chestnuts or millet until Europe started getting maize from the Americas. When Leonardo da Vinci ate polenta it was chestnuts dried and ground, then baked or boiled into a loaf.
Recipe for chestnut cake:
3 or 4 cups of chestnut flour
A bit less than a half a cup of olive oil
Water enough to make the mixture pour into a shallow baking dish
Mix the ingredients thoroughly and pour into the baking dish.
Then put pine nuts, raisins and sprigs of rosemary on top.
Bake in an oven pre-heated to 180° C.
After about 30 minutes it is ready. Good for breakfast and 5 o’clock tea.
Trees which make nuts are all evolved from ferns. Isn’t that remarkable? Over millions of years the spores which form on the undersides of fern leaves became the nuts, which is why there is no fruit, only the nut itself. Some fruit trees have seeds which are edible like nuts, however, such as pistachio, almond and apricot, cashews. Peanuts really are beans, which flower above ground, then descend underground to make the bean pod.
As everyone knows, black walnuts are the best nuts to eat; actually the best food to eat. But hard to shell. Hickory nuts, a close cousin, would be even harder to shell, except that they are so hard and dense it is impractical to shell them unless one fills a clean cloth bag with them and pounds them into small pieces with a stout stick.
Then they are dumped into a bucket of water. The shell sinks, the nutmeat, along with oil, rises to the top. This is skimmed off and picked over for bits of shell that might remain. The water is filtered and added to the nut meat, along with some hominy (maize which has been soaked in a potassium solution to make it softer and more nutritious). This is then cooked together until it is thick. Can be thickened more and formed into balls.
Impossibly good. It is called kannuche.
In parts of Brazil there are strange pine trees which produce very large pine nuts, as large as the first two joints of your finger, with soft shells. They can be simply boiled and shelled, eaten straight away or added to dishes.
In other words, what a planet! Let’s celebrate. Would you like some pecans?