Saturday, December 21, 2013

Chestnut Soup, A Williamsburg Christmas, Memory Lane and a Dash of Yuletide Cheer

When I was in 6th grade my father's naval career took us to Washington DC. or more exactly Reston Virginia. The 80's were a great time in the DC. area. The overdevelopment that now plagues the DC. Metro area was not to the level it is these days. There were still a lot of winding country roads for one to drive around on and farms still operating around every bend. It was an interesting change for my brother and myself, as Navy brats, coming from Hawaii and being shot into another matrix of people and places. But we took to it and soon found that we felt of it as home.

One new and exciting experience which we had during those years in Virginia was a Christmas trip to the historic Tidewater area of the state specifically the Williamsburg, Jamestown, and Yorktown triangle.

I mean it is a little hard to believe that so many parts of our nation's history actually played themselves out in this very small part of the country. It was after all the site of the first successful English settlement in the new world, Jamestown. It was the part time capital of the new nation at colonial Williamsburg, site of many historic discussions and meetings of our founding fathers. And of course Yorktown was where after being surrounded Cornwallis surrendered to George Washington and ended the Revolutionary War. That's a lot of history for one little area!

As young boys the thrill of going to this very historic place was really exciting and fun. Not just because we had the chance to go to all those historical places, but because we got to go on a vacation, stay in a hotel, and most likely eat out at some tasty interesting places. Oh even then we were thinking about food.

Now for those of you who have never been to Williamsburg, it is for me the most magical around the Christmas holidays. And for those of you who have been let's take a little trip down memory lane and remember our time there. Williamsburg is pretty engaging year round, But  during the holiday season, Williamsburg is really special.

First let me give you a sense of what Williamsburg is like in general. Imagine if you could be in a place that truly replicates the structures, lifestyle and atmosphere of a Colonial town. Well that mixed in with a good dose of tourist friendly activities and modern convenience.

But truly it is the atmosphere that is most engaging, and at Christmas time this is elevated to yet another level. Ok let me set the stage for you.  First you have this intensely developed almost Museum quality reproduction of a colonial town as it was on the eve of 1776. Next you have tourism opportunities to see, taste, tour and witness reenactments of moments in that period, houses of the period, shops of the period and restaurants or taverns of the period. Greenery decked with fruits in wreaths and garland is everywhere, candles dance and twinkle in the evenings, and bon fires are lit for singing and story telling as well as lighting up the holiday nights. It is magical and if you are the in the slightest interested in history and the past it can be quite enrapturing.

The dining experience back then in Williamsburg was varied as you may imagine. Everything from the modern coffee shop, to the Taverns in the town, to an upscale Dining experience, to the full on Colonial feast with Actors playing all the parts and the guests feeling themselves a part of the action. (Sort of a Medieval Times meets George Washington's Dining room). There were so many different dishes to sample. Colonial foods such as peanut soup, stuffed Chicken, pan roasts, wild game, and spoon bread. In the more haute cuisine area there was the Cascades restaurant, a very 1970's esque structure built near the conference center and visitors center.

For the Anglophile Williamsburg is the closest thing to seeing British colonial history come alive. And while we like to think of ourselves today as American and very different from England, the people who lived in the Revolutionary war times saw themselves as British subjects and even to some extent as fighting to regain their rights from and not win their freedom from, Mother England. In fact the war that became the American War of Independence really started as the war for sovereign rights.

In any case the British influence on our food traditions is clearly seen in the Williamsburg cuisine of today. Roasted meats, breads, puddings, soups and stews all having their roots in British cuisine are clearly represented. And at Christmas Time the traditional foods of the British table make their way to the menus of the Williamsburg Restaurants.

One such dish is chestnut soup.A long favored dish in European cooking Chestnut soup makes itself only minimally known in the Christmas traditions of today. Chestnuts in general are not really on today's food radar with the exception of Chestnut stuffing. So the back story not withstanding, this soup became known to me first in Williamsburg many years ago.And as I recently have become interested in researching my own personal food history I took a look at this dish again being that it is the holidays and all.

I made this for friends the other day and I have to say my friend Quincy summed it up by saying "this soup just tastes like Christmas somehow". Indeed it does. I found this version by Nigella Lawson online. I sort of love her cooking and her sensibility. So of course I changed it a bit only because I thought it needed more Chestnuts than she put in hers. Interestingly it's only seasoning is salt and pepper and yet the Chestnuts give the soup an amazingly rich flavor that at once evokes thoughts of sugar plums dancing in one's head, roaring fire and twinkling candel light, holiday cheer and all that. So here's a Holiday dish for you to try this season. Enjoy Ya'll!

Chestnut Soup ( based on a recipe by Nigella Lawson)

1 medium onion diced
3 to 4 stalks celery diced
2 carrots diced
1 cup dried red lentils
1 1/2 quarts water
1 tablespoon bullion ( Chicken or Vegetable)
450 grams jarred or canned chestnuts (cooked)
a couple of shakes of ground cloves
salt and pepper to taste
Extra water for thinning
1/4 cup cream ( optional )
chopped chives for garnish

Place the onions in a pot with some vegetable oil and cook until softened
Add the lentils and cook a little in the hot vegetables
Add the water and bullion and a few hardy shakes of cloves ( it's a background flavor so just a little)
Stir to combine
Add the Chestnuts and cook for about 40 mins to an hour over low heat
Puree the soup in a blender thin with more water if necessary
Serve with a drizzle of cream and chopped chives. Enjoy!
The holidays in a bowl!

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