Probably one of the earliest foods eaten by man, chestnuts have an amazingly long history. The ancient Greeks imported their trees from Asia Minor. Romans then imported chestnuts from Kastanum in Asia Minor and Castanea is still the botanical name. While several varieties of the chestnut tree exist worldwide, the majority of the commercial harvest consists of sweet chestnuts, Castanea Sativa, the only species native to Europe.
The fruit of the chestnut tree is encased, singly or with several others, in a prickly outer covering called a burr, which splits open when ripe to expose the contents. The highest grade chestnut called marrone, or marron, produces only a single large nut inside each shell and is usually reserved for European confections and is rarely seen in America. Castagne have several nuts to each shell and are the chestnuts that we find in our markets. Each nut has a thin dark brown shiny outer shell and a very tenacious brown inner skin, which has a bitterness that makes its removal essential.
The chestnut tree was also once one of America’s great trees. It flourished in New England and southward through the Appalachian Mountains to Alabama. In the early 20th century 99% of the once magnificent American chestnut trees were dramatically stripped from this country by a parasitic fungus. In the past decade, the chestnut industry has re-emerged, but the supply has not been able to meet the demand and chestnuts continue to be imported from Asia and Europe. The Asian chestnuts are starchy, less sweet, and have a potato like flavor. The European chestnut has the flavor that we find most familiar. Italy is still among the world’s largest producers of chestnuts, and these generally are the ones that flood our markets from October to January.
Healthy Food of the Poor
Holiday celebrations just aren’t complete without sharing a bowl of piping hot chestnuts or the more decadent marons glaces. Now almost a luxury, during wars when food was particularly scarce, Italian peasants gathered them to survive.
Chestnuts, as with all plant foods, contain no cholesterol and compared to other nuts have very little fat, mostly mono-unsaturated, and no gluten. They are very high in complex carbohydrates and have a low glycemic index. They are exceptionally rich in Vitamin C, B complex vitamins, folates and minerals. With the additional 50% water content, high fiber, and natural sugars, they are perfect for the nutrition conscious person.
How to Buy and Store Chestnuts
Choose chestnuts that have a dark brown, shiny skin, have no cracks or sign of mold and feel very heavy for their size. Because of their moisture content they are best kept refrigerated. Store them for up to a couple of weeks in a slightly perforated plastic bag with a damp paper towel in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator. Fresh chestnuts can also be frozen in their shells up to 4 months. Shelled and cooked chestnuts can be frozen in an airtight container up to 1 year.
Other Chestnut Products
Dried chestnuts – often have a smoky, sweet flavor from the drying technique. Can be stored like dried legumes in an airtight container, free of moisture. Reconstitute as you would dry beans, by soaking them in water overnight then place them in a saucepan and cover with 4 inches of water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer until puffed up and tender. To measure dried chestnuts, use half the quantity required in a recipe that calls for fresh chestnuts.
Chestnut flour “farina dolce”– chestnuts can be dried and milled into fine flour. Look for imported Italian chestnut flour that is light beige without dark specs which indicate bitter inner skin. Depending on the drying technique, the flour may have a smoky taste. This flour is often used for polenta, pancakes, fritters and baked sweets. Pasta made with chestnut flour must be mixed with an equal amount of wheat flour to form enough gluten to roll it out. Store chestnut flour in an airtight container in the freezer.
Canned cooked chestnuts – whole or as a puree, both sweetened and unsweetened
Preserved chestnuts – whole or pieces in heavy sugar syrup
Glazed chestnuts – marrons glacees – candied chestnuts
Chestnut honey – dark brown color like the chestnut, with an intense and bitter taste, typically served with pecorino cheese.
Chestnuts need to be cooked – roasted or boiled before eating. Due to their high levels of tannic acid, eating raw chestnuts is likely to give you a tummy ache. The outer thin shell and inner bitter brown skin must be removed before eating; blanching or roasting will make the removal much easier. Rinse and dry the chestnuts before cooking. To facilitate removal of the shell, you’ll need a really sharp knife to carefully cut an X along the bottom of the nut where it was attached to the outer hard spiny shell. This works better than cutting an X on the flat side and needs to be done before boiling or roasting.
To boil – cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and simmer for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and scoop out a few at a time, peeling off the shell and the inner skin. As they cool and dry out, they become more difficult to peel, so work in small batches. Once peeled, finish cooking them in water, milk or broth according to your recipe. If you fully cook them in their shell (15-20 min) they are likely to crumble to pieces as you peel them.
To roast in the oven – make cuts as described above to allow the steam to escape during roasting. Uncut chestnuts will likely explode in the oven from internal pressure if not pierced! Place the chestnuts in a single layer on a baking pan in a 400-degree F. oven for 20-25 minutes, stirring halfway through. You will notice the shells peeling back. Remove from the oven and immediately tightly wrap them in a cotton dishtowel and a woolen cloth/old sweater. This will further steam the pulp, flavor it with the burnt peel and prevent them from drying out. Serve hot. One pound of raw chestnuts will yield about 2 cups peeled, roasted chestnuts.
To roast in a fire – if you are not fortunate to have a special chestnut roaster (long handled perforated skillet), improvise with an aluminum pie plate and punch rows of holes in the bottom. Make cuts in the chestnut as described above and place them in the skillet/pie plate on white hot embers. When the skins are quite burnt and blackened, remove them from the pan and wrap them as described above. Proceed as described for oven roasting.