When we lived in London one of our favourite autumn activities was to go sweet chestnut foraging in Greenwich Park. Dotted all over the hilly parkland were huge trees that reliably fruited year on year, scattering their spiked bounty on the grass below. There is something deeply satisfying about easing the nuts from their prickly little jackets with thick gloves or a confident foot-squish, and stashing them away in a brown paper bag to bring home. We would compete with dozens of others and a hefty population of local squirrels, to collect as many as we could. Nowadays we keep up the tradition, but instead collect our chestnut hoard from some enormous, old trees that are a short walk from our house.
The wild-harvested chestnuts are much smaller than the cultivated varieties available to buy from supermarket shelves or the flaming metal buckets of Christmas street vendors, but they are just as flavoursome. Gently sweet and earthy, they are wonderful alongside smoke, salt and sugar. Which brings us on to the next part of our chestnut foraging routine…
The evening before our annual chestnutting walk, we make marshmallows. Whites from some of our chicken eggs, a few springs of rosemary from the garden, and sugar and vanilla from the storecupboard. Whipped up and dolloped free-form onto greaseproof paper, they will be ready to eat the next day. The snowy mouthfuls are pillow-soft, deeply sweet and almost woodsy. They go really well with chestnuts.
When we come home from our walk, and as the light starts to fade, one of us will get a fire going in the woodburner, while the other puts the chestnuts in the oven to roast, along with a generous crumbling of smoked salt. As the fire crackles and the chestnuts cook, we make hot chocolate on the hob top with creamy whole milk, organic cocoa powder and bittersweet dark chocolate cubes.
We usually set up a film or TV series to watch and put on our cosiest pyjamas. The hot chocolate is poured into deep mugs, and topped with bobbing rosemary marshmallows. While still piping hot, the salted chestnuts are tumbled into a bowl. Sometimes we toast and butter a few crumpets too. Then we sit and have a quiet evening of peeling and eating the still-warm chestnuts, rolling them in extra salt, and sipping our hot chocolate. It’s all very ‘hygge’, particularly if it happens to be raining.
There are always enough marshmallows and chestnuts to last us the rest of the week, which gives us an excuse to make more hot chocolate. Taken outside as a pick-me-up during a day of garden tidying and log stacking, it all tastes even better.
Remove the chestnuts from their spiky husks and put a small slit in each of their shiny brown skins with a knife, being careful not to pierce the flesh inside. This will allow steam to escape as they cook; skip this step and a series of small explosions can be expected. Put in a roasting tin or cast iron skillet, sprinkle liberally with crumbled sea salt (a smoked variety is good) and pop in the oven at 200°C. Roast until the skins have visibly split open a little; this usually takes around 15mins, but will depend on the size of the chestnuts. Peel the skin and rub off the thin brown under-layer on the still-warm nuts before eating.
For each mug of hot chocolate we mix three heaped teaspoons of cocoa powder with half a teaspoon of plain flour (to thicken it a little) and whisk the two into a paste with a little milk. Then we add three chopped cubes (about 15g) of dark chocolate (70% cocoa solids) and more whole milk (about 250ml). We gently heat and stir the mixture until the chocolate has melted and the milk is steaming hot. We don’t add any sugar as we find there is plenty of sweetness in the milk and the marshmallows that we top the mugs with before serving.
Rosemary and Vanilla Marshmallows
- 3 large sprigs of fresh rosemary
- 200 ml boiling water
- 2 tbsp cornflour
- 2 tbsp icing sugar (preferably unrefined)
- 9 g powdered gelatine
- 150 g granulated white sugar
- 2 medium egg whites
- Pinch of salt
- 1 tsp vanilla extract
First make a rosemary infusion: ensure any bugs have been shaken off the rosemary sprigs, remove the leaves from the stems and put them in the bottom of a jug. Cover with the boiling water (pushing down the leaves as needed to ensure they are fully covered) and leave to cool. The rosemary stems make handy marshmallow skewers, so it's worth keeping hold of them for serving time.
Mix together the cornflour and icing sugar and sprinkle it over a baking sheet covered with greaseproof paper.
Pour 65ml of the rosemary water over the powdered gelatine and set aside to soften.
Put 40ml of the rosemary water (any leftover infusion can be discarded) in a small saucepan with the granulated sugar and put on a medium-high heat to dissolve the sugar. Once the sugar has dissolved, start to measure the temperature of the mixture with a kitchen thermometer; when it reaches 118°C or 'soft ball' on the thermometer markings, take it off the heat. Don't stir the mixture during this time. Meanwhile, whisk the eggs in a food mixer on a medium speed with a pinch of salt until they are white and fluffy.
Once the sugar syrup is at the correct temperature, turn up the mixer to a high speed and slowly trickle the sugar syrup into the egg whites.
Stir the gelatin mixture and then slowly dribble it into the mixer as well. Then add the vanilla essence. Continue to whisk on a high speed until the mixture has cooled down and the marshmallow is white, fluffy and voluminous.
Dollop the marshmallow onto the prepared baking sheet in individual portions using a desert spoon.
Leave to firm up overnight, then dust all over with a little more of the icing sugar mixture before putting in a sealed jar or container. They will keep for at least a week.