Chestnuts are found throughout Italy, and have been a staple of their cuisine for thousands of years. Mentioned in writings from Homer and Pliny, they were cultivated throughout the region by the Middle Ages, especially in the mountainous areas where they are one of the few crops that can grown on steep slopes, as well as produce during colder winter months. In some of the more mountainous areas, the economy revolved around the chestnut, as people gathered them in the fall, and worked throughout the winter to sort, dry and sell them.
Chestnuts were traditionally dried to preserve them. A small, two story hut was built, and the chestnuts were laid out in the top story; a fire was started in the lower story, under a large stone shield that protected the crop and the building itself, from the heat of the fire. The fire was kept going continuously, the heat drying the nuts and the smoke would rid them of the worms that could infest and ruin an entire crop. During colder evenings, entire families would gather in the roasting hut to enjoy the warmth and aroma of roasting nuts. Dried chestnuts can be boiled, or the dried nuts ground up into flour and used in a variety of dishes, such as pasta or baked goods
There are many different varieties found throughout Italy: the smaller, flatter castagne and the rounder, fuller marroni. Up in Northeastern Italy there are several areas that still cultivate chestnuts, mostly of the marroni variety. We still find vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts at market stands in the fall during our Italiaoutdoors Food and Wine bike tours; the aroma is divine, and the nuts a wonderful treat to enjoy on a cooler fall shopping day.
When purchasing chestnuts, look for shiny, healthy nuts without any discoloration. They should also be firm and solid, without much give between the shell and the flesh. In the markets and homes in Italy, you can still find chestnut roasters, essentially iron pans with holes, with a long handle. The nuts would be placed in the pan, sprinkled with a bit of water, and roasted over a fire. I don’t have any special equipment for roasting chestnuts, all you really need is a sheet pan and a hot oven.
To roast chestnuts, preheat your oven to 450°. With a small sharp knife, cut an “X” into the flatter side of each nut. Place the nuts on the sheet pan and roast for about 15-25 minutes, depending upon the size of the nuts. They are done when the skins around the “X” have pulled back, and the nut meat inside is fork-tender, but still firm. Peel when still warm, and enjoy as the Italians might, sprinkled with some red wine, with a glass for yourself – a lighter Schiava from Alto Adige would be perfect.
Here’s a recipe for a tasty winter holiday salad, where chestnuts are paired with some nice crisp apples and ripe red pomegranate seeds.
Insalata di Marroni, Mele e Melagrana
1/2 pound chestnuts
1 large apple, cored and sliced
1 stalk celery, peeled and sliced
6 cups mixed greens
2 tablespoons sherry vinegar
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat oven to 425°.
On the flat side of each chestnut, cut a large X with a small sharp knife, all the way through the skin. Place the chestnuts on a sheet pan and place in the oven. Roast for about 30 to 40 minutes, depending upon the size of the chestnuts. Shake the pan occasionally to make sure the nuts cook evenly.
Peel the chestnuts as soon as they are cool enough to handle. Coarsely chop.
Cut the pomegranate in half, and remove the seeds. This is easily done over a bowl of water, dropping the seeds into the bowl. The white pith will float as the seeds sink.
Place the salad greens in a large salad bowl. Add the chestnuts, apple slices, celery and pomegranate seeds.
Place the sherry vinegar and olive oil in a small lidded plastic container. Cover tightly with the lid, and shake vigorously. Season with salt and pepper.
Add the dressing to the salad, and toss lightly. Serve.