Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Forget Diamonds, Give Me Chestnuts

It's true. In fact, I'm willing to go on record and state that I'd choose those glossy, burnished orbs over a colorless gemstone any day. (Note that last adjective. Rubies, emeralds and sapphires are exempt from this declaration.)
(Illustration by John Mille, 1779)

My ardor for chestnuts was stoked in England in the 1970's when my classmates and I would hunt for them in the dense copse behind our school. I remember them blanketing the ground in such abundance that we could hardly walk without stepping on one of their hard spiky shells. Greedily gathering up as many as we could hold, we would take them home, poke holes and thread a string through them and bring them back to to the playground the next day for fiercely competitive "conker" tournaments.
(Me with my siblings during the height of my chestnut obsession.
I'm second from right.)

Years later, I discovered the pleasures of eating them, either roasted on the streets of Manhattan or wrapped in gold foil from Clement Faugier, undisputed king of marron glacés (chestnuts candied in a vat of vanilla syrup and then glazed). My passion quietly intensified.
(Clement Faugier marrons glacés, the caviar of candy.)

I always dreamed that one day I'd have a chestnut tree to call my very own, but sadly, importing them is apparently against the law in California due to agricultural restrictions. (Every time I put one in my online shopping cart, a stern warning pops up).

So imagine my surprise when this past Saturday, I received a box in the mail from my former art director during my days as an NYC advertising copywriter. Despite distance and busy lives, Alex S. has remained a treasured friend, a 21st century aesthete (think David Niven meets Cecil Beaton) who lives and breathes a kind of classic style one rarely encounters these days.

The package was heavy and rattled alarmingly. Luca was convinced it was full of Legos.

Oh, it was a thousand times better than that.

* * * * *
Lisa and Family,

I remember you said you liked chestnuts -- Enjoy -- A bounty harvest from our beautiful 100-plus year old tree -- part of the original Auchincloss estate....

* * * * *

Can I even begin to tell you how touched I was? (Plus, how often does one receive chestnuts with a bloodline?) Inside the box were hundreds of them, painstakingly de-shelled by his children. I upended them into a glass bowl and thrust my hand deep into the container, rolling them between my fingers in such unhampered bliss that my son looked on open-mouthed.

Of course I immediately incorporated them into a "memory-scape" (what I'm calling a tablescape filled with meaning) for my dining room. Every time I look at them, I am transported to somewhere long ago and far away.
Seriously, instead of a cold, hard stone, wouldn't you rather have a bowlful of shiny, glossy conkering heroes?


mary said...

Careful, Lisa. Conkers are (poisonous) horse chestnuts and the roasted chestnuts and marrons glacés you enjoyed would have been sweet chestnuts. They tend to be smaller and flatter. I'm guessing your friend has sent you sweet chestnuts, but it's a bit hard to tell from the picture.
I gathered masses of them last week and am mortified that I left them in a plastic bag and they've all gone mouldy.

Acanthus and Acorn said...

The picture is priceless, the gesture from your friend truly remarkable.

I think you feel about chesnuts the way I feel about acorns!

I have a few buckeyes and although darker have that wonderful smooth texture that you describe.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Mary: Oh, so sorry about your loss! What fun you must have had gathering them, though -- that's one of the best parts. And thank you for clearing up some genus confusion -- my friend didn't know exactly which type they were, but now I'm assuming they're definitely horse chestnuts. xx

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

Acanthus and Acorn: Don't even get me started on acorns. I have a few in my coat pocket that I picked up in Hyde Park in August -- just had to throw them out yesterday, in fact, because they had gone brown and shrivelly.

But my God, they're gorgeous, too! Mine had a lovely brown "knitted" cap on top of its long slim green body.

Chestnuts and acorns -- were you and I squirrels in a past life?

Emily said...

What a lovely surprise! My best friend once made a killer chocolate roasted chestnut torte! Her first attempt and it was amazing! And, in other news, I made your butternut squash soup last night. Fellow Bloomsburians, you must try it!

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Auchincloss chestnuts, no less.
You are so right. They're like brown jewels.
Will you roast any?

Rocio said...

Yes, they look like horse chestnuts to me too. Beautiful.
We will soon have the seasonal chestnut stalls set up around town. They roast them for you on the spot!. I cannot wait to have a warm newspaper cone filled with deliciously sweet chestnuts to warm my hands while I run my errands.

helen tilston said...

Lisa - beautiful post which brought back memories of the battles we fought with chestnuts, as children in Ireland. "knick knack, first crack on your chestnut" was the invitation to start the battle. The object of the game was to crack open the opponents chestnut. Love your picture as a child.

pve design said...

Chestnuts along with the heady aroma make me go nuts! I love chestnuts on Thanksgiving. We were given some walnuts and are having so much fun cracking them open and enjoying them bit by bit.

Unknown said...

As a child growing up in Germany we played every autumn with those horse Chestnuts - or Kastanien- in German. We would string them, collect them as food for the zoo and build small animals from chestnuts, acorns and match sticks.
What you picture above looks very much like horse chestnuts. Please do not try to eat them.
Occasionally we found a tree in some backyard with a edible chestnuts , highly prized and with an enticing aroma when roasted. I always love the particular taste of it.
Love your center piece.

Gigibird said...

Are you going to try and grow a tree from some of the chestnuts?
You may at last have your tree:)

Alcira Molina-Ali said...

Gorgeous, magnificent, delectable, delish...what a wonderful offering.


Share my Garden said...

Dear Lisa, sweet chestnuts are delicious but horse chestnuts should only be eaten by horses! I've been out gathering sweet chestnuts and the cases are so prickly, so your friends were very good to shell them for you. Enjoy!

Karina said...

Lisa, living in LA as well, I assume then that you have sampled the plump and juicy steamed and scored chestnuts sold in the Korean Galleria supermarket on Western? At only $2 a bag, I stock up by the crate...

wild thyme flowers said...

Lisa, you're the best ! You can write about chestnuts and make it sound as though i'm missing something terribly important. I suddenly have this urge to learn about chestnuts! I was just reading an interview with someone (can't recall who) but they said the best writers are the ones who have a great appetite for reading. I instantly thought of you.

Dianne said...

Chestnuts with a blood line! I love it!

Sensible Footwear said...

I haven't gathered any conkers or yet eaten chestnuts this year. Love them both and their shiny beauty.

There's a really lovely Autumn inspired post over at Spitalfields Life illustrated with a great image of some conkers. (Great word isn't it?)

And how nice to be reminded of the adorable David Niven!

Here's the Spitalfields Life link:


Vava (aka Virginia) said...


Michelle said...

Mmmm, the smell of roasting chestnuts is one of my favorite things in the whole world.

Lisa Borgnes Giramonti said...

What fascinating comments!

To all who concerned about my health: Don't worry, these horse chestnuts are for visual pleasure only. :)

Emily: I love you for trying out the soup...isn't it amazing?

Rocio: I'll be there in spirit with you at that chestnut stall!

Helen Tilston: Best game ever, right?

PVE: Digging out those walnut bits is like finding lost treasure.

Victoria Art: I love your idea of making them into animal sculpture.

Gigibird: What a genius you are. I wonder if I could really do that?

Karina: No, I haven't been there! And it's so close to me...do you mean the one on Hollywood Blvd just east of Western?? I will go there today... I'm salivating just thinking about it!

wildthymeflowers: You do me honor with your lovely comment. Thank you soo much. xx

Sensible Footwear: Love that blog, but haven't been on it in a while. Thank you for the reminder -- will head over there in moments! xx

Kim said...

I thought I was the only woman alive who doesn't care much for diamonds.

A colored gemstone is what makes me smile. It looks like it may be time to dig out my favorite piece of jewelry, a deep reddish brown garnet ring, bought for myself about 30 years ago.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful writer you are. I love them too! I also have a bowl of them on a table in my living room, with acorns and driftwood. I don't know if they are chestnuts or buckeyes, but that silky mahogany is irresistable. I pick them up in my walks around Evanston - a suburb of Chicago.

by land by air by sea said...

when the men who roasted chestnuts
appeared with their smoking carts
on the street corners of london
twas a sign of winter coming...


Unknown said...

What a wonderful post and tribute to your friend. Those glossy and glimmering chestnuts do look like
jewels in your memoryscape.
You and your siblings look adorable in those matching outfits,
were they a home creation?

24 Corners said...

What a very special and thoughtful gift...the true sign of a dear friend. I love that Luca gave you a *look* when you stuck your hand in the bowl...I wonder if you'll be finding Lego's mixed in with them...just a thought?

I have a thing for Hazelnuts and we've been given bags of them by friends who grow them (such a treat)...so many that the squirrels end up getting to enjoy them also.

Lovely post as always...
xo J~

Anonymous said...

I am so hungry

Avril said...

Your horse chestnuts are wonderful but are sad too in that a leaf virus is killing off European horse chestnut trees. The leaves go prematurely brown and curled and eventually the tree dies. A tree expert tells me that if you have a single tree and can pick up and burn every single leaf you stand a chance of saving the tree...but it is all so sad. Those conkers on strings we all played with as children may become a thing of the past.

Susan's Snippets said...

Lisa -

They are wonderfully beautiful to look at...but I have never eaten one that I have enjoyed very much.

bad taste and texture and such

gluttonforlife said...

I recently acquired a bowlful of local chestnuts and have been wondering what to do with them. I think a chestnut soup is in order...

bigBANG studio said...

Oh, CHESTNUTS! We used to gather them as children each fall and carry them around in our pockets as worry-stones. What a generous gift!

Valerie Wills Interiors said...

The photo of you and your siblings made me smile.... the way you are touching your younger sibling reminded me my kids. Love how it was captured in the photo ;o)

karina said...

Lisa, it's the supermarket in the downstairs of the Koreatown Galleria, at 3250 W. Olympic. There is free parking inside and the entire mall is fascinating. But the kids especially love the Korean supermarket: lots of free samples on the weekends, live fish in the tanks for the picking, interesting rice desserts and kimchees, and (my favorite) bags of steamed chestnuts (you can buy either peeled or in the shell)! It's a great place to be on a Sunday. The foodcourt upstairs also has great Korean food for lunch.


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