Forbidden Fruit

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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.

Oven-Roasted Chestnuts

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!


11 Responses to Forbidden Fruit

  1. Tracy Hayes October 4, 2010 at 11:42 am #

    Thanks, Domenica for sharing this story. You made me laugh and now I have something new to try!

    • Domenica October 4, 2010 at 5:29 pm #

      Thanks for commenting, Tracy & I’m glad i made you laugh. It is pretty funny, though at the time I wanted to bang my head against the chestnut tree! ; )

  2. colleen @ foodietots October 4, 2010 at 3:12 pm #

    You’re kidding, they actually wrote someone a ticket for picking up chestnuts? What a shame! On another note, congrats on the new blog!

    • Domenica October 4, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

      Thank you, Colleen. It’s a work in progress…But yes, seems kind of wasteful to me to have two officers staking out the chestnut tree on the Parkway!

  3. joe gray October 4, 2010 at 9:54 pm #

    Domenica, my mom loved to buy them from vendors on street corners in Rome. … and here she would roast them as you descrbe (she didn’t have the pan either) and eat a pile all herself. None of us liked them but her. Now, though I love them.

    Thanks for the great story.

    • Domenica October 5, 2010 at 7:28 am #

      Thanks, Joe! Makes me want to be in Rome right now…

  4. Margie Gibson October 5, 2010 at 12:50 pm #

    I tried roasting chestnuts years ago, just before Thanksgiving. I followed the instructions in Joy of Cooking–including incising a small X into the flat side of the chestnut. I arranged them on a pie plate and popped them in the oven. Not too long after, I heard one or two small explosions emanate from the oven. I opened the door and found the remains of chestnuts hanging like stalagtites from the ceiling of the oven. I grabbed a potholder and set the offending chestnuts on the top of the stove and luckily had retreated to the far end of the kitchen to do something else. The remaining chestnuts continued to explode, all over the kitchen. I had more chestnut stalagtites hanging from the kitchen ceiling. The top of the stove was covered with their remains, and my potted plants on the window sill looked like snow had fallen. The following Easter, five months later, I was still picking tiny pieces of chestnuts out of the African violet.

    Moral of the story: cut BIG Xs on those chestnuts before they get anywhere close to heat!

    • Domenica October 5, 2010 at 8:06 pm #

      Wow, Margie! Didn’t know they could be THAT dangerous. Yes, make the Xs large enough. Also, I make the cuts on the rounded side of the chestnut, not the flat. Not sure whether that makes a difference or not, but I’ve never had any explode.

  5. janie October 6, 2010 at 9:23 am #

    Great story! My grandmother always made them for us in the winter-I’ve only cooked them once and now I will try it again, if I can find them!

  6. Maureen November 12, 2010 at 6:42 pm #

    Oh Domenica, that IS criminal. If this had happened in MD, I would have asked my old boss Sen. Barbara Mikulski to investigate the stupidity of this law. I love chestnuts myself and must have eaten them roasted as a child in Philadelphia. I finally splurged and bought myself a chestnut X-er -for lack of a better word. It cuts and then pushes the chestnut off the blades. My neighbor gave me a bowl of chestnuts from her tree but sadly they all had worms. 🙁

    • Domenica November 12, 2010 at 8:54 pm #

      Maureen–Thanks for posting your comment Maureen. I am intrigued by this chestnut X-er. Must investigate!

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