Cultivated by ancient villages in Italy’s Apennine woodlands, spread throughout Europe by Roman legions and nearly forgotten by the 19th century, the chestnut is back—again being dished out by cooks, chefs and, of course, holiday street vendors.
by Ian Wolff
Few things usher in the holidays like the smell of roasting chestnuts wafting down the streets of Italian cities and towns. Even in Manhattan, Christmas time brings the smokey aroma to its brightly decorated Midtown avenues. From Nat King Cole crooning about them roasting on an open fire to street vendors serving up bundles of warm roasted chestnuts, this delicacy is an ubiquitous part of Christmas. But while the chestnut has only recently enjoyed a return to popularity in the U.S., the castagna, or common chestnut, is intricately woven into Italy’s culinary history.
Over 2000 years ago villages in the Apennine woodlands, which stretch the entire length of Italy’s peninsula along the east coast and were once thick with chestnut trees, survived long winters on the trees’ bounty. The fallen nuts were picked from the forest floor and dried in two-story stone drying shacks, the remains of which can still be found throughout the region. The nut also played a role in the Roman Empire: On their lengthy campaigns, Roman legions planted chestnut trees to help provide food for their vast armies. Polenta was made with chestnut meal until corn arrived in the 16th century. And castagnaccio, a flatbread of chestnut flour baked on an oiled stone, was a common staple. The gluten-free flour was used to bake heavy, dense loaves of bread, and was prized for its resistance to spoilage. If the chestnut was a staple during hard times, at least it was nutritious—the starchy nut is high in carbohydrates and has nearly as much vitamin C as a lemon.
The chestnut was a part of many traditional recipes and even became a delicacy by the 16th century. The famous Italian chef of the 16th century, Bartolomeo Scappi, included chestnuts in a banquet menu. After roasting and peeling them, Scappi wrapped the hot chestnuts in towels with rose petals, sugar, salt and pepper so that they absorbed all the flavors before being plated. Yet despite their prevalence in Italian recipes, by the 19th century the chestnut had become equated with cucina povera, peasant food, and was excluded from aristocratic tables; combined with deforestation and the shift away from agrarian practices, the chestnut was nearly wiped out.
Now, though, it has returned to favor both in Italy and here in the U.S. Its resurgence began with the hybridized Italian marron chestnut. Juicier and sweeter than its cousin, the marron is now the most common chestnut used in cuisine. Outwardly it resembles the original chestnut: heavily armored with prickly spines, a dark brown, hard outer shell and a bitter inner skin. Inside, it’s different. Where the castagna contains two small, flat nuts to a burr, the marron has a single, larger heart-shaped one.
They first became popular as candied chestnuts called marrons glacés in France. Marrons continued to appear in fine French fare, and Italians were quick to embrace them. Thanks to a renewed interest in the country’s culinary heritage, the chestnut is again turning up in top Italian kitchens. They garnish ice cream and fill tarts. They accompany meats and are made into pastas. Chestnut flour is used in breads, cakes and pastries for its nutty taste and sweet smell.
While chestnut vendors line Manhattan city streets around the winter holidays and pedestrians fight the snowy chill with a paper cone of hot, roasted nuts, in Italy the chestnut is still associated with times of hardship. They are given to the poor every November on Saint Martin’s day as a symbol of the sustenance they provided throughout Italy’s history.
Italy is still among the world’s largest producers of chestnuts, and most chestnuts in the U.S. are imported from there. Though early American settlers survived long, cold winters on native chestnuts, the huge chestnut forests were decimated by blight in the early 1900s. Now the Mugello region and Sicily fulfill the holiday appetite for the nut.
Roasting is a particularly popular preparation of the chestnut. Boiled or puréed, they can be served with wild game. They’re also a main ingredient in stuffing for poultry, from chicken to quail, like quaglie farcite in salsa al vino rosso, stuffed quail in red wine sauce. The chestnut’s versatility extends to sweets, also. The flour is baked into three-grain chocolate and raisin brioche, or they can be puréed with honey and cream for a rich desert.
Fresh chestnuts can be bought from early fall through winter. The freshest will have glossy, unwrinkled shells and feel heavy in the hand. Out of season, or for less work, you can find them already peeled, and dried or frozen. Soak dried nuts for an hour before use. They come candied, puréed or prepared like jam into a delectable spread. You can also buy coffee beans roasted with chestnuts and honey from chestnut pollen.
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