All last weekend were we in the thick of things picking olives in the backyard. Olive picking in Tuscany sounds gorgeous. Seriously, the first time, I decided to give my father-in-law a hand, I was really excited. It’s such an Italian thing to do. Collecting olives on a warm autumn’s day before stopping for a hearty lunch of bread and red wine, before hauling your harvest to the local olive mill, where donkeys churn an old stone grinder. I mean, there’s definitely a Federico Fellini movie about that! Or there should be!
In reality, picking olives is fun for about the first 20 minutes. After that, you find yourself muttering: “I can’t believe people pay to do this!” and wondering how a tree can have so much fruit! It’s actually really hard work, which is probably why Giulio always invents some last minute excuse to get out of helping!!
By tree 5, the only thing that kept me going was thoughts of the new season olive oil. If you’ve never had freshly pressed olive oil, you are missing out. The oil we buy in the store is at least five or six months old, if not older. Olive oil starts losing its flavour the moment it’s pressed. Even the most expensive bottle won’t taste as good as freshly pressed oil.
If you’re in Italy around this time (October-November), I recommend looking up the nearest frantoio (olive oil mill) and stopping by. They sell freshly pressed olive oil at about €12 a litre. It sounds like a lot, but this stuff is green gold. Tuscan olive oil is bright and full of flavour with an incredible punchy aftertaste that is, if you can believe it, spicy. Giulio and I have eaten nothing but bruschetta dipped in our olive oil for dinner every night for the last week! It’s that delicious!
Which brings me to this recipe. As much as I love olive oil bruschetta, I wanted to make something that would still celebrate the punchy spiciness of the olive oil… but with vegetables… since, you know, vegetables are important.
Chestnuts are in season at the moment and it turns into soup with help of the soup maker. They’re creamy and starchy and really filling, so a little bowl goes a long way. It mightn’t seem like there aren’t a lot of them in this recipe, but trust me, they have a really robust and smoky flavour after you roast them.
Quick and easy, this chestnut soup is winter and the holiday season in a bowl. You can throw it together the night before and have something heartwarming for dinner the next evening. The nuttiness of the chestnuts pair really well with the bright grassy flavours of new season olive oil or any extra virgin olive oil you have in your kitchen pantry.
If you like, you can beef this soup up with fried bacon or pancetta bits, while if you prefer a vegan version, use vegetable stock and replace the milk with extra stock or water. It will be just as delicious!
CREAMY CHESTNUT SOUP with new season olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 potato, peeled cubed
4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
50g unsalted butter
1 cup milk
3-4 slices of day old ciabatta, cubed
1 tsp chilli flakes
Preheat your oven to 180°C. Make a cut or two into each of your chestnuts with a small, sharp knife. Be careful you don’t cut your fingers! This will stop them from exploding in the oven.
Place on a oven tray and bake for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and place in a heatproof bowl. Cover with aluminium foil and leave to steam for about 15 minutes. Peel the thick outer skin and furry inner skin to reveal the light brown nut inside. Discard any chestnuts that look rotten or dark brown.
Dice the leek and garlic. Melt half the butter in a heavy-based casserole dish. Add your leeks and garlic and cook over medium-high heat, stirring every so often, until the vegetables have softened and are beginning to brown (about 5 minutes). Add the cubed potato, roasted chestnuts and chicken stock, bring to the boil and then lower the heat, cover and simmer until the vegetables are soft (50 minutes).
Add the remaining butter and the milk and blend the chestnut soup either with a stick blender or in an upright blender until smooth and velvety!
To make the croutons, drizzle a generous amount of olive oil in a pan. Add the bread cubes and fry over high heat until golden. Sprinkle over a little salt and chilli flakes and, if you have it, a drizzle of new season olive oil.
Serve with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, cracked black pepper and croutons for a decadent winter’s chestnut soup.