A complex, slightly sweet and incidentally gluten-free alternative flour
Chestnut flour (or ‘harina de castaña’, to give it its proper Spanish name) is exactly as it sounds: flour, made with chestnuts. “No additives, no nothing,” says James Robinson at Brindisa. “The chestnuts do have to be dried slightly, because they have a reasonably high percentage of water, so they are left in an oven for several hours at a low temperature to dry slowly.” And that, other than being milled to a fine, silken powder, is that.
While chestnut flour might more readily be associated with Italian cuisine, the Spaniards’ love affair with chestnuts is a long-standing one, “particularly in the north,” says James. “Chestnuts are a traditional product of Catalonia, the Basque Country and inland Galicia,” the latter of which, from where the nuts that go into this particular flour hail, is the largest growing region. “They’ve been cultivating them for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years, particularly before the conquistadores brought back exciting things like potatoes and maize in the 16th century. It was an important carbohydrate for people.”
The autumnal chestnut harvest still warrants a huge festival, “usually around All Saints Day—it’s connected strongly with Gaelic Samhain, marking the end of the harvest and the beginning of a long, dark winter. It’s still celebrated widely in inland Galicia.”
Layers of complexity
Grinding chestnuts into flour, however, is a more recent development—“they have generally been eaten whole, often roasted”—but a culinary boon for those afflicted by an intolerance to gluten. “It can be used as a substitute for straight flour, particularly in cakes,” James continues. “I recently had an orange cake made with chestnut flour, which was lovely, really light and delicious.” Use it on its own or combine it with 20 per cent ordinary flour to add a touch of sweetness and an extra layer of complexity. “You might not be able to distinguish the flavour of chestnuts, but it certainly has a notable richness and gives things added depth.”
The one word to the wise is its thickness—“you might find things come out a little denser and you have to work harder to make sure there’s enough air in there”—but with Pancake Day (sorry, Shrove Tuesday…) just around the corner, a thin and crispy crepe seems the perfect place to start experimenting. “Pancakes are a good use for chestnut flour,” says James. Try them dolloped with yoghurt and drizzled with fruit puree, or topped with chestnut honey. “The Galicians like a bit of aniseed flavour: possibly infused in a bit of cream. That with chestnut pancakes would be a lovely combination.”