Part of the beech and oak tree family, chestnuts are a winter nut, especially popular around Christmas time. Wild chestnut trees do still grow in Britain, mostly in southern England, although the majority of commercially grown chestnuts are from France and Italy.
Chestnuts aren't the same as horse chestnuts (better known as conkers), even though they look pretty similar.
Chestnuts used for cooking with have a slightly tapered point, while conkers tend to be rounded all over.
The tree produces spiky green husks in autumn - burrs, which split open when ripe to reveal chestnuts inside.
They're always cooked before eating, after which they develop a distinctive, sweet, nutty taste and floury texture.
Sold on street corners through winter, open-roasted warm chestnuts are sold in their shells making a healthy and affordable snack
Look for ones in their shell which feel heavy for their size and have a rich colour. Steer clear of any that are greyish or wrinkled. The shelf-life of these nuts is around 1-2 months. Cooked and shelled ones should be covered, refrigerated, and used within three to four days.
IN THE KITCHEN
Chestnuts have higher starch content, and less oil than other nuts, lending a floury, less crunchy texture.
Used in both sweet and savoury dishes, they're usually boiled, roasted, steamed, pureed, or ground into flour. Remember to score the base of the shells before cooking, so that they don't split while cooking.
Boiled in their shells, either in milk or water, chestnuts remain moist and are suitable for pureeing - allow around 20 minutes cooking time. Aim to shell them while still hot - it's much easier. Keep chestnuts waiting to be shelled, immersed in liquid and covered in a lidded pan - this helps stop the shells from drying out and toughening.
After taking off the outer shell, there's a thinner, paper-like coating, which should also be removed. If all this seems too much like hard work, you can always buy vacuum-packed chestnuts or canned puree, which are ready to cook with.
The natural sweetness of whole, tender chestnuts work well with brussels sprouts. Its richness also complements game dishes, especially when used as a stuffing. In sweet dishes, pureed sweetened chestnuts are a natural partner with chocolate. The nuts also work well with vanilla and cream - great for cake fillings.
Candied chestnuts, known as marrons glacés are a French speciality, traditionally enjoyed at Christmas.