The Chestnut Soup Revolution

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If we want to free ourselves from this omnicidal nightmare, and create an alternative way of life that is sustainable and free of class divisions and all forms of domination, then we must dispossess the dispossessors, and take back our means of subsistence. – Stephanie McMillan

(I’m planning to write about this topic in greater depth for potential publication, so for now I’ll just put up a few photos, minimal commentary and quotes.)

How did the unofficial nut harvest go this year?

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Not bad. No acorns and just a few green hazelnuts but a good haul of walnuts (mum helped out with the harvest so she took about 1/2 a plastic bag’s worth on top of the above), quite a few beechnuts and a decent load of sweet chestnut from the local park and complemented by some big beauties from my parents’ holiday in Brittany. The above picture, taken on a rare sunny day on the living room carpet where they’ve been slowly drying out near the radiator for the last month or so (thanks to H for her tolerance and understanding!), was after I had already processed about 1kg of the chestnuts which I used to make a big batch of soup.

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I adapted the recipe from one in Pamela Michael’s Edible Wild Plants and Herbs, doubling her quantities to:

1kg chestnuts
2 onions
2 carrots
50g butter
2l chicken stock

I also added one potato, diced into small pieces, and some sage and rosemary.

The chestnuts and veg got ‘sweated’ in the melted butter on a low heat for around 10mins before I added the 2l water with a chicken stock cube crumbled and stirred in straight after. This was brought to the boil and left on a steady simmer for about 45mins (longer than the half hour Michael advises to allow for the extra bulk). Then I added salt and pepper and blitzed it roughly with the soup wand, leaving a few chunky bits of chestnut for variety of texture:

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Ta-da!

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The rest was allowed to cool, poured into an old ice cream tub and put in the fridge. Over the following week I heated up batches on the stove in the morning and took it to work in my trusty food thermos for some outstandingly satisfying hot lunches just as the Autumn cold was finally starting to kick in (it took its time this year). Sweet, starchy and filling, with a slight astringency probably due to the inner skins which I couldn’t be bothered to peel off properly.

Here’s a great article originally from The Cambridge History of Food (they had it up on their site in full but have since taken it down) on the history of chestnut consumption in Europe, where until quite recently it served as a staple food for much of the peasantry:

[In] the sixteenth century, we discover that “an infinity of people live on nothing else but this fruit [the chestnut]” (Estienne and Liébault 1583), and in the nineteenth century an Italian agronomist, describing Tuscany, wrote that “the fruit of the chestnut tree is practically the sole subsistence of our highlanders” (Targioni-Tozzetti 1802, Vol. 3: 154). A bit later on, Frédéric Le Play (1879, Vol. 1: 310) noted that “chestnuts almost exclusively nourish entire populations for half a year; in the European system they alone are a temporary but complete substitution for cereals.” And in the twentieth century, the Italian author of a well-known book of plant-alimentation history mentioned that chestnuts not only were collected to be eaten as nuts but could also be ground into flour for bread making (Maurizio 1932). He was referring to the “wooden bread” that was consumed daily in Corsica until well into the twentieth century (Bruneton-Governatori 1984). Clearly, then, chestnuts have played an important role in sustaining large numbers of people over the millennia of recorded history (Bourdeau 1894).

[…]

When we pause to consider that our sources place the daily consumption of chestnuts by an individual at between 1 and 2 kilograms, we can quickly understand why the chestnut qualifies as a staple food. And like such staples as wheat or potatoes, chestnuts can be prepared in countless ways. Corsican tradition, for example, calls for 22 different types of dishes made from chestnut flour to be served on a wedding day (Robiquet 1835). When fresh, chestnuts can be eaten raw, boiled, baked, and roasted (roasted chestnuts were sold on the streets of Rome in the sixteenth century and are still sold on the streets of European towns in the wintertime).

Despite the fact that planting and maintaining chestnut ‘orchards’ took a minimal amount of energy, especially when you compare it to the massive effort required to grow annual grain crops, what takes up the time (as I’ve found) is processing:

Fresh chestnuts constituted the bulk of the diet for those who harvested them until about mid-January — about as long as they could safely be kept. But before they could be eaten, the nuts had to be extracted from their rigid shell and stripped of their bitter and astringent skin. This is a relatively easy procedure when chestnuts are roasted, but generally they were boiled. Peeling chestnuts was usually done by men in front of the fire during the long evenings of autumn and winter. To peel 2 kg of raw chestnuts (the average daily consumption per adult in the first part of the nineteenth century) required about 40 minutes. Therefore, some three hours, or more, of chestnut peeling was required for the average rural family of five. The next morning around 6 A.M. the chestnuts, along with some vegetables, were put into a pot to begin boiling for the day’s main meal.

For my soup I spent about two hours over consecutive evenings peeling the nuts in front of the computer screen – although progress would have been faster if I hadn’t needed to throw away so many mouldy or worm-eaten ones (I got to the local ones too late). It’s not an unpleasant activity in and of itself, but I can easily imagine getting sick of it if it was something I had to do every evening for months on end. I’m guessing what made it more bearable was the social aspect where all the peeling would be accompanied by jokes, stories, games, gossip, banter, maybe even singing. Sadly until I get my tribe together I have to rely on videos from the internet* to fill in some of those empty spaces…

Here’s my setup FYI, working from left to right:

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I picked up the knife for €5 from a specialist shop in the Auvergne, where we went on holiday over the summer. It’s supposedly purposely designed for peeling chestnuts and garlic, and I’m just about getting the hang of it so’s I don’t spike or carve my thumb on every other nut. It’s a sharp little bugger!

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For the rest of them I’ll probably make another batch of soup, maybe roast some in the oven, add to last year’s small bag of flour or peel some properly and put them in the freezer for Christmas.

It’s a good thing to do every Autumn – plugging yourself directly into personal subsistence activities so for at least some of your meals you can say that you were part of the process of cultivation, harvesting and consumption at every stage, thus taking back control over a small part of this fundamentally important aspect of your life. To expand it’s full revolutionary potential (as McMillan suggests) would entail things like protection of existing productive environments, fighting for access and/or control of land where more trees could be planted, and working to make this foraging subsistence (alongside other more intensive forms like allotments, smallholdings etc.) a greater part of community life. When you regain that kind of autonomy over your own lives, then the power structure loses an important tool of manipulative control – do what we say or starve – so it’s one step closer to the kinds of revolutionary social upheavals that are necessary to halt the destruction of the living planet.

Anyway, that’s what I find myself thinking in the evenings lately.

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* – Check out the ‘Earth at Risk’ lectures currently up on youtube, especially the breathtaking radicalism of Stephanie McMillan, from where this post’s opening quote comes from. I think I’ll end up buying the DVD too.

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6 Responses to “The Chestnut Soup Revolution”

  1. Kitchen-Counter-Culture Says:

    Glad you are back!

  2. leavergirl Says:

    Listened to the whole lecture, gadz, just for you, Ian! I hate long lectures… McMillan is a sharp lady, and I agree with much she says. But I always find her rabble-rousing “dismantle the system!” and “smash the entire global matrix!” not credible. That is the part in her system that reminds me of that cartoon where the complex math equation runs into a place that says, and now, a miracle happens.

    I really need to write about this again. Well, first back to the Neolithic though. Keep yer eye peeled, for my post on “our true history.” Any day now.

    I think you are right about regaining autonomy over our lives. That indeed is part of the solution. Looking forward to more! P.S. I thought you just roast chestnuts to have them split the shells and dry off the skins…?

  3. Ian M Says:

    Thanks,

    Yes part of me glazed over at that point (“smash the system”), even though it was part of a cartoon and probably meant to represent something a little more complex. I don’t know why it offends my sensibilities so much. Maybe because it’s just a slogan and missing all the backstory & nuance that really gets me going… I liked her point about trying to pin discussion as close as possible to the radical/revolutionary center of the issue, rather than wasting time with wool & fluff that anybody could cheaply agree with and pass on for easy facebook ‘likes’. These days it pains me to open my mouth if I’m not using other peoples’ talking points to try to persuade them to look a little deeper 😉

    I see your new post is up, so will check it out with interest and maybe add my tuppence… BTW the rewild forums are slowly coming back to life, with a new homepage to boot: http://rewild.com Peter kickstarted your old ‘villain or boon companion‘ thread and provided this link to a bunch of articles in ‘Current Anthropology’ on agricultural origins: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/658481 I’ve been meaning to do a post on the couple of articles detailing the spread of farming across Europe and into Britain and how they’ve revised my understanding. Sadly time is not on my side at the mo…

    best wishes for now
    I

  4. chashopkins Says:

    Chestnuts are an overlooked soup ingredient, my favourite when i can afford it is duck and chestnut soup, makes the carcass and leftover bits go a long way. For you veggies, a fave of our family in autumn is roasted pumpkin and chestnut. Off topic a bit, if you’re after an easy tasty filling soup, curried carrot and apple is proper top.

    • Ian M Says:

      Thanks for the tips Chas 🙂

      Not cooked much with duck before, though I hear it gets really fatty. Do you keep that aside for future cooking or just have a really greasy soup? (I don’t know whether that would be a good or a bad thing!)

      cheers,
      I

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