Chestnut confessional: ON the scene with Village Nuts

Village Nuts on Helwick Street

ON the job: Lisa roasting up a storm on Helwick Street.

Winter announces itself in Wanaka with a whisk of snow on the hills, frost in the mornings and the scent of burning firewood wafting through town. Since last year, this aroma has mingled with a second, more delicious one: roasting chestnuts.

This divine essence comes to us courtesy of Village Nuts. Started last year by Greg Inwood and Lisa Johnston, the Village Nuts cart has already become a Wanaka winter institution, and we caught up with Lisa to find out more about our favourite steamy sidewalk treat. Turns out roasting them is quite an art, and did you know chestnuts are an aphrodisiac? Read ON.

How long have you been selling roasted chestnuts in Wanaka?

This is our second winter on the roasting cart, but arguably Greg has been playing village nutter for around two decades.

Where did you get the idea? 

It was just an obvious thing really. Here were around 100 beautiful chestnut trees on the shores of Lake Wanaka, dropping a tonne of top quality chestnuts each year, and us looking for ways to create sustainable rural enterprises. Hot roasted chestnuts are a much-loved winter staple all over the Northern Hemisphere, and it seemed about time us nutters down here got our roast on too.

Where can we find you selling nuts this winter? 

We have a pre-ski season warm up routine where we’ll be at the Farmers’ Market on Thursday and downtown from 4–7pm Friday, Saturday and Sunday. We move around with the cart a bit, but we can often be found opposite Kai. We’re not hard to find – just look out for the fairy lights and nutty regalia, or put your nose to the air and let the sweet smell of roasting chestnuts pull you in.

Once the ski season starts we expect to be downtown from 3-7pm every day except Monday and Thursdays from 4-6pm when we’ll be down at the Farmers’ Market, at Spencer House Mall. The Farmers’ Market is where we’ll be pulling out all of our special tricks, including some collaborations with The Chocolate Workshop, some great deals on pre-cooked nuts, some recipe ideas, and some R & D with our new line of locally-grown hazelnuts.

We are having our grand launch-off at the Farmers’ Market on Thursday May 22, and my friends and I will be playing some traditional Italian folk, as well as some ragtime classics on accordion, mandolins and guitars.

We are also available all season long for private parties or special events.

Where do you get the nuts from?

Both the chestnuts and the hazelnuts come from Barn Pinch Farm on the lakefront next to Waterfall Creek. It’s a pretty magical power spot, and I reckon the nuts pick up that magic and transmit it to the people who eat them.

Can you describe the roasting process?

First we score a cross on the outer shell of the nut. That part is extremely important, unless you want to experience a pan of exploding hot chestnuts; exciting, but painful and potentially maiming. The slit nuts get jumbled around in an extremely hot pan for around 10 minutes then we pluck them out one-by-one when they have a perfect all-round charredness to the outer skin, and a golden brown caramelised colour on the nut inside.

What makes a perfect roasted chestnut?

When a chestnut is cooked to perfection, the outer skin looks quite black, and should come off easily, the inner skin (or pelicule) is golden brown and should also flake off easily. The chestnut itself should be golden and crunchy-chewy-caramelised on the outside, and soft, moist and kumara-like in the middle.

Mmmm. That sounds yummy! Can you tell us a little bit about yourselves?

We are ordinary village folk. In fact we are so ordinary that in an unofficial ceremony we changed our surname to ‘Chang-Li’, a combination of the two most common names in the world. We are passionate about our community and healing our environment, and we believe that growing and making our living from treecrops (trees grown for food, timber, or other uses) is the way to have it all. After all, we do live in the land of Tāne and we believe it’s about time we relearnt how to live with and make our living from forest habitats.

Why are chestnuts called chestnuts?

Contrary to popular belief, the word chestnut does not derive from the old French word ‘chastain’ or ‘chaitagne’, or the Spanish word ‘castanea’ … but it is a reference to the aphrodisiacal qualities of chestnuts, which generate a surge of warm amorous impulses in the heart or chest region of chestnut munchers. All we can say is, choose wisely who you munch with.

Drooling? Head down to the Wanaka Farmers’ Market at Spencer House Mall this Thursday and grab yourself a bag of chestnuts!

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