Last weekend I had what I thought was a pretty good idea: collecting chestnuts on the banks of the Potomac River. This is something I’ve wanted to do for years, ever since I first spied a chestnut tree along the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
I literally drive by this chestnut tree, and several smaller ones around it, every day on my way to retrieve my daughter from school. In the fall it is an alluring sight—branches loaded with round spiky green pods that hold within them the glossy brown nuts.
The tree is not much more than a stone’s (or a chestnut’s) throw from my house, and yet I have never managed to find the time to stop. In autumns past I have seen others—in particular a sweet-looking elderly couple—gathering the nuts, walking in slow circles around the trees, slightly hunched, eyes on the ground.
This year, I thought, I was going to help myself, too. I woke up extra early on a Saturday morning (OK, so I wanted to beat the elderly couple there). My daughter, who is always game for a walk, came with me. I held a bag in which to carry our treasure.
And chestnuts are treasure. On a chilly fall night, there is nothing better than sitting down with a batch of freshly roasted chestnuts and eating them, while they are still warm, like candy. They are unique—sweet and starchy, crumbly and creamy, not to mention nutritious and low in fat. As my daughter and I made our way closer to the tree, I was already contemplating what I would do with my bounty (roast them, puree them into soup, bake a torte, maybe even make marrons glacés!).
Perhaps I should have known by the flashing lights of the police cruiser that something was up. Instead, I was already scanning the ground, looking for a glimpse of glossy brown among all the discarded pods.
“Don’t do it, ma’am. Don’t do it!” came the all-too-serious voice behind me, as though I were about to pluck the Hope Diamond off its revolving pedestal. I turned to see a barrel-chested uniformed park police officer walking (sauntering?) toward me, his eyes hidden by his mirrored aviator sunglasses (OK. I made that last part up. He wasn’t wearing sunglasses.)
“You can’t pick the chestnuts,” he informed me. Say what??
Alas, it’s true. According to Title 36, Part 2.1 Code of Federal Regulations it is illegal—albeit a misdemeanor—to collect the chestnuts along the GW parkway—which, of course, is federal parkland. The law also states that “The superintendent may des- ignate certain fruits, berries, nuts, or unoccupied seashells which may be gathered by hand for personal use orconsumption upon a written determination that the gathering or consumption will not adversely affect park wildlife, the reproductive potential of a plant species, or otherwise adversely affect park resources.” But apparently that was not the case here. Indeed, even as the officer was informing me about the law, his partner was writing out a citation to a woman who had shown up before I and had been caught red-handed.
I pointed out what a crying shame it was to leave perfectly good chestnuts to squirrels but the officer was unmoved. Perhaps he had never had one before. I asked about the “sweet” elderly couple that I had seen countless times before. Apparently, like street corner drug dealers they seem to know exactly when to make their move and when to split. (Even as I was having my conversation with the officer I spied them, quietly hovering in the distance.)
I thought about returning after the squad car had departed, but collecting chestnuts while looking over my shoulder and jostling two obvious masters in attempt to grab a share of the booty did not have the same appeal.
I did find my chestnuts, though. I bought them at the farmers’ market.
In Italy, chestnuts are traditionally roasted over an open fire, in a shallow pan with holes punched in the bottom. My mother has one, but alas, I don’t, so I roast mine in the oven. Here’s how:
Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. With a sharp paring knife, cut a small, deep “X” into the rounded sides of the chestnuts and arrange them in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast the chestnuts for about 20 minutes, or until the cut part of the skins have curled back and the nutmeat is soft. Wrap the hot chestnuts tightly in a clean dishtowel and squeeze them. You will hear their skins crack. Let the chestnuts rest in the towel for just a few minutes before peeling them. Buon Appetito!