Christmas at last! It is a time of joy, togetherness, and chestnuts roasting on an open fire… Indeed, in the Mediterranean part of Europe, the not-so-chilly winter air fills smoke, not from the fireplaces or house furnaces, but from stalls selling chestnuts! However, it is not the only place where chestnuts are enjoyed.
Those starchy little pieces of warm goodness are often overlooked since they are not as readily available for many. Nevertheless, for millennia they have been a staple ingredient in such parts of the world as Southern Europe, Southwest and East Asia as well as Northern America.
But chestnuts grow not only in those parts. What about those magnificent chestnut trees in parks all around the world?
Sweet chestnut vs horse chestnut
It is vital to know that when talking about consuming chestnuts, people are referring to special varieties of large sweet chestnut trees, not any chestnut in general.
While sweet chestnuts are edible, horse chestnuts are poisonous to humans. If you eat them, you may experience some horrible digestive problems such as abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting as well as throat irritation.
Thankfully, it is possible to easily differentiate between the two kinds.
First of all, their shape is a dead giveaway. The “casing”, or the burr, of the sweet variety is brown, has many long bristly spines, and contains two or three fairly small and flattened nuts. In contrast, the horse chestnut burr is thick, bright green, has small and short spikes as well as encases only one larger rounded nut.
Another clue would be the location of the tree. While horse chestnuts grow in cities and parks, sweet chestnut trees tend to thrive in woods, forests, or groves.
Last but not least, their leaves are also different. The popular palm-shaped ones belong to the poisonous kind. On the other hand, the leaves of the edible one are more simple and elongated.
The edible chestnut, often also referred to as the sweet chestnut, is native to the uplands of Western Asia, North Africa, and Southern Europe. The earliest known record of chestnut cultivation comes from the 3rd century BC. However, some researchers claim that those trees were present near the modern Swiss-Italian border even around 10 000 years ago!
It was probably the Romans who introduced and popularized chestnut cultivation in Northern Europe and Britain. There was even a time when the previously mentioned part of the Italian-Swiss Alps was known as the chestnut civilization. Since farming was not possible in this area, chestnuts became a viable alternative to grain.
Nowadays, the chief European countries that produce chestnuts are Spain, Italy, Portugal, Greece, and France. Globally, edible chestnuts are also harvested, among others, in Japan, Turkey, and China. In the regions where they grow, those trees are a major food crop. And rather versatile, at that.
Methods of preparation
In general, there is little that you cannot do with chestnuts. They can be roasted, candied, boiled, steamed, deep-fried, or grilled. You can eat them on their own, as stuffing, in savory dishes as well as in desserts.
Roasting is probably the most popular cooking method employed to prepare chestnuts. Once cooked, their texture resembles a baked potato. The taste is delicate, slightly sweet, and with a pleasing hint of nuttiness. The list of countries where you can find stalls selling roasted chestnuts is quite extensive and includes Austria, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Turkey (either roasted or candied), and South Korea.
In China, they are often coated in sugar and molasses, and then stir-fried with coarse sand in an oiled wok. However, they are also often boiled and eaten simply with rice or served with a protein, be it chicken, pork, or mushroom.
Turned into flour
You can even process chestnuts to achieve sugar or flour! From such flour, people produce a variety of baked goods, kinds of pasta, and polenta. Moreover, some use it for thickening sauces, stews, and soups. In Corsica, for instance, people use chestnut flour to make fritelli (doughnut-like fritters) or necci (galettes).
Marrons glacés, because that’s what the French call chestnuts prepared in such a way, are glazed and covered in sugar syrup. Those high-quality glossy pralines are a popular Christmas treat.
The French consume chestnuts in yet another form: crème de marrons (chestnut cream) is a pantry staple that appears in recipes for a plethora of confections, from ice creams to cakes. Moreover, sometimes a dollop of this cream is placed atop other desserts as a garnish.
Perhaps the most famous French dessert making use of sweetened chestnut cream is Mont Blanc. It consists of a thin tart base and chestnut puree in the form of thin vermicelli. Moreover, all of it cover splashes of whipped cream.
Similarly, Hungarians combine pureed chestnuts with sugar and sometimes also with a splash of rum. Then, such a mass goes through a ricer or a grinder. Upon serving, it is topped with whipped cream. A Swiss version of this dish is called vermicelles. In contrast to the previous versions, its ingredients include kirsch and butter and a crisp meringue as a base.
Recipe for Classic Roasted Chestnuts
You can either roast them in an oven, over charcoal, or try to do it in a microwave. Either way, you will need to first score the shell of the nuts in an X pattern to prevent them from bursting.
- Spread the chestnuts on a baking tray and bake at 190 degrees Celsius until tender or for around half an hour.
- Put the cut nuts into the machine. Bake them on high setting for around 30 seconds. Cool, peel, and eat.
The cooking times in both variants of preparation are approximate. They may differ in your case since the power and settings of the machines are not always identical. For this reason, it is better to check on the nuts from time to time to avoid overcooking them. Then, they would become dry and very rubbery.
Also, remember that it is easier to peel sweet chestnuts while hot. So make haste and enjoy!