There is no more alluring festive image than the Victorian feast, with glinting copper jelly moulds unveiling the kitchen’s most indulgent creations. We’ve looked at the era’s most popular dessert for inspiration on how to use one of winter’s most familiar foraged ingredients — the sweet chestnut — to create an alternative to Christmas pudding
As Christmas closes in, little remains of nature’s larder except a scattering of nuts, including the sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), which offers a little nutritious punch within its excessively prickled outer shell. Mature chestnuts usually fall from October onwards and they can be stored for up to a month in the fridge, or longer boxed between layers of dried sand. It’s not surprising that roasting them has become winter tradition, with their familiar smell often colouring Christmas fairs and markets.
Sweet chestnuts have been well-used in Britain for centuries — although not for as long as was once thought. Initially, the introduction of the tree was attributed to the Romans (the world’s oldest sweet chestnut resides on the slopes of Mount Etna) but more recent analysis by Jarman et al. (2019) could only prove they had been in Britain since the mid-1600s.
As well as used whole in both sweet and savoury dishes, the sweet chestnut can also be pureed into puddings and soups. The Victorians particularly liked to showcase them in an indulgent frozen dessert known as Nesselrode pudding, which was popular everywhere from the continent to America. This pudding was apparently created especially for 19th-century Russian diplomat Count Karl von Nesselrode and both the original recipe and numerous variations survive. As well as the frozen ice-cream version there was also a blancmange-style pudding made using gelatine. We’ve opted for the frozen version — not least because it’s easy to make in advance and then whip out for your guests when you’re ready.
The recipe is essentially based on a chestnut puree-flavoured custard, sweetened with a fruit syrup, with additional festive luxury added via a few lashings of sweet fruit liqueur (traditionally maraschino) and handfuls of dried and candied fruits. There was a large amount of variations on this theme, however, even among contemporary versions. We’ve embraced the opportunity as a chance to experiment with adding flavoured foraged syrups and homemade hedgerow fruit liqueurs.
30 sweet chestnuts
1pt single cream
1/2 pint syrup (eg tinned fruit syrup or a sugar syrup made with 225g sugar and 1/2pt water)
6 egg yolks, lightly beaten
1 vanilla pod/1tsp vanilla essences
2 x 50ml glasses of maraschino or cherry brandy or a combination. (Feel free to experiment with foraged liqueurs here eg sloe gin, damson brandy, etc).
2 handfuls of mixed dried fruits eg: glacé cherries, candied peel, dried cranberries, dried apricots
Peel and boil the chestnuts until soft and allow to cool. Remove all of the fluffy skin, which should come off easily once they have boiled. Push the chestnuts through a sieve into a large mixing bowl to make a powder.
If you are making the sugar syrup from scratch, heat 1/2 pint of water in a separate pan and stir in the 225g of sugar until it’s completely dissolved.
Stir the ½ pint of syrup into the sieved chestnuts and allow to cool completely.
Add the 1pt of single cream and egg yolks and bring to a gentle simmer, stirring continually. When the mixture has thickened enough that when it coats the back of the spoon a clean line can be drawn through it, the custard is ready.
Allow to cool and fold through the liqueurs and dried fruits of your choice. Pour into jelly mould and freeze overnight.
Always stay safe when foraging. You need to be 100% sure of your identification, 100% sure that your foraged item is edible, and 100% sure that you are not allergic to it (it is good practice to always try a small amount of any new food you are consuming). If in doubt, leave it out!