This small article was published on the December 2005 Newsletter of the Societa` Dante Alighieri – Comitato di Hong Kong on the occasion of the 2005 Grape Festival (Festa dell’Uva) in Hong Kong when for the first time the roasted chestnuts were offered.

 

 

THE CULTURE OF EATING: CHESTNUTS

 

 

“CASTAGNE” <chestnuts>……. “CALDARROSTE” <roasted chestnuts>……. It is quite normal to hear these words shouted on Italian streets in autumn and winter and, surprisingly, chestnuts are a very popular food also in China and in Hong Kong.  Roasted, bought from a vendor wrapped in the traditional yellow paper and eaten on the street, chestnuts are one of those simple pleasure of life that bring us back to our childhood. When "glaces", they become a delicacy for gourmets.  Besides these extremes different utilization of chestnuts and marrons, let’s have a closer look to this tasty and energetic fruit which crosses cultures and social classes and which, from being considered “the bread of the poor”, transformed itself into a fantastic ingredients that is worth to be considered.

 

 

 

 

Chestnut trees had been extremely common in all the Mediterranean area since thousands of years ago. Although the Romans were mainly using their wood for the construction of  furniture and utensils, giving the fruits to animals, during the Middle Age chestnuts became a very common food for the poor peasants, thanks to their availability in large quantity from the Alps to the Apennines and to, their highly nutritious properties. Only to obtain "Marrons" - light brownish, heart-shaped and with a particularly sweet pulp - it is necessary to make grafts between trees. The most famous marrons are from Piedmont and from Tuscany, but there are several other good varieties. Compared to the spontaneous chestnuts, marrons have the great advantage of being bigger and easier to be handled; thanks to their thin inner skin which can be quickly eliminated and does not penetrate the fruit pulp.

 

 

 

The appreciation of gourmets for this autumn fruit and for its multiple gastronomical utilizations is proved by many initiatives such as the recent creation in San Zeno di Montagna (Italy, near Verona) of a "Brotherhood for the enhancement of the Monte Baldo's Chestnuts", one of the several varieties for which the granting of the DOP certification (Protected Original Denomination) has been requested. The DOP certification for traditional gastronomical products has been recently introduced in Italy, similarly to what already done in the wine sector with the DOC and DOCG certifications, aiming to protect producers and consumers and assuring the genuinely traditional food.

 

Chestnuts, in fact, can be used also for the preparation of desserts, main meat dishes and even pasta. Moreover, chestnuts trees' flowers are needed by the bees for the preparation of the highly appreciated "half-bitter honey" or "chestnut tree's honey". The old traditional recipes of the peasants were quite simple, because of the lack of other ingredients and therefore they were just variations of "chestnuts with milk". Although the Middle Age Lords were not particularly fond of chestnuts, due to their nature of "food for the poor", they accepted them usually in the form of puree to accompany the hunted animals' meat. In the XIX Century chestnuts were mainly used as filling of turkeys or other birds cooked in the oven and, as a dessert, with sugar, liqueur and fresh cream in what we call now "Monte Bianco" (Mont Blanc).

 

 

 

 

There are many different methods for cooking chestnuts. Like popcorn, fresh chestnuts have a closed shell with moisture trapped inside. When roasting, the moisture can forcefully pop the nut open. Always slit the shell to allow the steam pressure to escape. Otherwise the nut will burst with a small explosion. If they cool off too much after they are cooked, they can become harder to peel. If this happens, just put them back into the oven, or boiling water, to reheat. The following are some simple methods for cooking chestnuts at home:

 

Oven Roasted Chestnuts - Method 1 (Oven Roasted)

1.      Preheat the oven to about 225 C.

2.      With a sharp knife, make a slit through both the smooth outer shell and the textured inner skin. This will allow the steam pressure to escape as the nut heats up.

3.      Place the nuts in a shallow pan.

4.      Roast in the oven for approximately 15-25 minutes. You may wish to turn them over after 5-10 minutes for a more evenly roasted chestnut.

5.      Take out of the oven and let cool slightly before peeling both shell and skin (they will peel more easily when they are still warm).

Oven Roasted Chestnuts - Method 2 (Oven Broiled)

1.      Turn on your oven's broiler.

2.      Score the nuts as mentioned in method 1.

3.      Place the scored nuts in a shallow pan.

4.      Place the pan on the top rack of the oven.

5.      Broil the nuts until the outer shell blackens slightly. Again, you may wish to turn them over after a few minutes for a more evenly roasted chestnut.

6.      Broil for approximately 7-10 minutes more.

7.      Take out of the oven and let cool slightly before peeling both the outer shell and the inner skin (they will peel more easily when they are still warm).

Boiling

1.      Place the nuts in a pot of boiling water.

2.      Boil for approximately 30 minutes.

3.      With a slotted spoon, transfer several of the nuts to a work surface.

4.      Peel both the outer shell and the inner skin while they are still warm.

Note: Some cultures add sugar or salt to the water while boiling them to enhance the flavor.

Other Methods Of Cooking Chestnuts

Chestnuts roasting over an open fire in a wire basket or in a special perforated chestnut roaster pan, on the range in a large skillet over medium heat for 15 minutes, or in the microwave.

 

 

 

 

Nowadays food science has fully highlighted the nutritious properties of chestnuts which are very similar to those of beans; they are rich of potassium, calcium, vitamin B, sugar, proteins and they are poor of sugar. Just a handful of other foods can match the nutritional value of a chestnut. Unfortunately, very few are aware of this. As opposed to most other nuts, chestnuts have high water content and very little oil, thus making them virtually fat free. They are high in complex carbohydrates, contain high quality protein comparable to eggs, are gluten free, cholesterol free, and are very low in fat (1-2% while other nuts can be over 50% fat). Nutritionally, they are similar to brown rice and have been described as a grain that grows on a tree. Interestingly enough, they have as much ascorbic acid as an equal weight of lemons and are the only nuts approved by the Pritikin System. A part from people suffering of diabetes, stomach diseases and people who are overweight, everyone can enjoy chestnuts, from youngsters to older people.

 

Fresh chestnuts can be tasted roasted, boiled, steamed as a cream; the dried ones are usually used for the preparation of desserts. We can taste them almost all the year round (in Rome, at a corner of Piazza di Spagna <Spain Square> with Via Condotti, roasted chestnuts are sold even in summer) and, for the first time, this year 40 Kg. of original Italian chestnuts will be shipped and will be available - roasted - at the Italian Grape Festival. All over the world, autumn is considered the best season for gourmet delicacies and everyone is invited to taste the Italian chestnuts and other superb dishes on October 31, 2004 at 4pm sharp please refer to the Italian Grape Festival leaflet for venue and booking details).