Chestnuts have long been associated with Christmas in the Philippines, possibly a cultural contribution of both the Spaniards and the Americans. The nutty and smoky aroma of chestnuts being roasted in massive woks heated over charcoal fires is one of those scents that have become specific to the Yuletide Season. The popularity of these nuts is such that they have made their way into the words of a popular Christmas song:
Dadalhan ko kayo ng manzanas at ubas;
May kendi at tsokolate,
Peras, castañas na marami
[I will bring you apples and grapes;
There will be candy and chocolate,
Pears and chestnuts aplenty]
While there are tropical chestnut trees found in local forests, the bulk of the chestnuts sold in the Philippines are imported from China. The cheaper ones are big with a rather leathery shell and a mealy-textured interior; those of better quality are smaller, the shells easier to crack, and the nut falls out in one piece and has a sweet, somewhat honeyed flavor. While there are bags of vacuum-packed chestnut kernels available in supermarkets and gourmet stores, people happily buy bags of unshelled roasted nuts because part of the pleasure of eating them is in the cracking open.
Most Filipinos are unaware that chestnuts are also used for cooking a number of sweet and savory dishes in other countries. The French have those sweet chestnuts preserved in syrup known as marrons glaces and the dish known as Mont Blanc – a mountain of riced and sweetened chestnut puree topped with a generous dollop of whipped cream. Creme des marrons, a thick, sweet chestnut paste, is used to fill cakes and pastries, incorporated into the filling for chocolate bonbons, and whipped into the base of ice creams. Closer to home, the Japanese serve kuri kinton – chestnut dumplings – to bring good luck for the new year and the Chinese use the nuts in winter braises featuring either pork or chicken.
France is also home to nouzillards au lait, a soup made by cooking the nuts in chicken stock and milk – a nourishing thing to eat on freezing winter evenings. It is an interesting balance of sweet and savory, what with the nuts being balanced by the flavors of chicken stock, onions, and garlic; the milk adds a hint of richness that makes it both comforting and unforgettable.
Given that there are still chestnut stalls in many Manila supermarkets and public markets, making something along the lines of nouzillards au lait is something that will give locals a different way of cooking and eating chestnuts – and it is a richly satisfying one, as well. I’ve made my own modified version of this French winter classic below and I hope it keeps you and your family warm as you enjoy it for dinner. 🙂
Creamy Chestnut Soup
- 1/4 kilo roasted and shelled chestnuts
- 1 large potato, peeled and chunked
- 2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh parsley
- 1 L chicken broth
- 1 large white onion, finely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled, crushed, and finely chopped
- generous pinch of cinnamon
- salt and pepper to taste
- 2 tablespoons bacon fat
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1/4 cup all-purpose cream
In a large saucepan, melt the butter with the bacon fat over medium heat. Once the fats are hot, add the onion and parsley and cook whilst stirring for about a minute. Add the garlic and cook till browned. Pour in the chicken broth, chestnuts, potato, and bay leaf; bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 30 minutes or till the potatoes and chestnuts are tender.
Once these are soft enough, remove the bay leaf and pour everything into a blender or food processor and blitz until liquefied and smooth. (Alternatively, you can dip in your immersion blender and process the soup till smooth.) Return to the saucepan and heat through. Season to taste with the salt, pepper, and cinnamon. Lower the heat and add the cream; stir until well-combined and remove from the heat.
Serves 6 as an appetizer and 4 as a stand-alone course, particularly when served with a rustic-style loaf with butter and proper cheese. Be sure to warm your bread before serving.