Chestnut trees are a common sight in our woods and parks, but very few produce fruits fit to human consumption. Most of the chestnuts in Slovakia are only good for playing with and creating works of arts. When they ripen and fall off in late September, children from schools and kindergartens are the first to collect the nuts and make them into human or animal figures.
I ate roasted chestnuts from street stalls on a couple of occasions, but that was all I knew about the culinary use of chestnut until recently. When I was researching material for the second part of A Taste of Slovakia book, I came across an outstanding event slightly off the beaten track in the south of Slovakia.
With its 1526 inhabitants, Modrý Kameň is the smallest town in Slovakia. It was built under the Modrý Kameň (Blue Stone) Castle, which now houses a unique Museum of Puppets, Marionettes and Toys, and hosts an annual Chestnut Festival (Gaštanové slávnosti) at the beginning of October.
You’ll find more information about the origins of the oldest grove of edible chestnuts in Slovakia in the forthcoming book, but what I’d like to share with you right now is a recipe for Chestnut Parcels. I got it from a lady who, like many others, entered the competition for The Best Chestnut Dessert at this year’s Gaštanové slávnosti in Modrý Kameň.
For the dough:
- 300 g semi-course flour*
- 250 g cold butter
- 1 tablespoon white vinegar
- 6 tablespoons cold water
- 1 vanilla pod
- zest of 1 lemon, grated
For the filling:
- 350 g edible chestnuts
- 150 g castor sugar
- 1 tablespoon rum
*can be replaced by all-purpose or pastry flour outside of Slovakia
- Line a baking sheet with a piece of parchment paper.
- Rinse the chestnuts under running water and put them in a cooking pot filled with water. Bring to a simmer and cook for 30 minutes. Strain on a sieve and let cool down.
- Mix the flour and the butter in a medium bowl until crumbly. With a sharp knife, split the vanilla pod down its length and scrape the seeds out onto the flour mixture. Add the vinegar, the lemon zest and the water, a tablespoon at a time. Mix all the ingredients together until well combined. Cover and let rest in a cool place for 30 minutes.
- Meanwhile, shell the chestnuts and peel the brown skins off. Grind them on a nut grinder, or pulse in a food processor. Add the castor sugar and the rum, and work into a smooth paste.
- Dust a rolling board with flour, and use a rolling pin to roll the dough out until it is about ½ cm thick. Cut into squares of 8×8 cm. Place a dollop of the chestnut paste in the middle of each square, and join the opposite corners of the square to form a half-open ‘parcel’. If your chestnut mixture is not thick enough to stay in place (this will depend on the kind of chestnuts you’re using), join the other two corners of the square to close the ‘parcel’.
- Distribute the parcels around the baking sheet and bake in the oven preheated to 180ºC for 20 minutes, or until the parcels turn golden brown. Take out of the oven, let cool down, and sprinkle with some more castor sugar.
Apart from desserts, edible fruits from the old chestnut grove in Modrý Kameň, as well as those from the people’s private gardens, are also used in soups, sauces and savoury chestnut stuffings.