Real Food Encyclopedia | Chestnuts
There are several different species of chestnut distributed in the temperate parts of the globe, all in the Castanea genus; the most commonly known are the American, Japanese, European and Chinese varietals. DNA evidence shows that all species of Castanea probably arose in eastern Asia, splitting into the Chinese and Japanese types in the Eocene (circa 56 million years ago), then spreading to Europe and North America a couple of million years later. In Europe, nutrient-rich chestnuts became an important staple food, crucial to groups living in the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean (especially parts of France and Italy). The “Cambridge World History of Food” refers to these as “chestnut civilizations,” that is, groups that “had to fashion their lives around the trees, from planting the trees to processing the fruits.” The ancient Romans are said to have planted chestnut trees wherever they conquered.
The large and beautiful trees were the dominant species in the forests of the eastern North America, important for food and timber. That is, until 1904, when Cryphonectria parasitica, a fungus that causes chestnut blight, was accidentally introduced to the U.S., probably from imported Japanese chestnut trees. Chestnut blight is generally not deadly to Asian varietals of the tree, but the introduction of the blight was devastating to American chestnut stands. By 1940, the American chestnut was virtually wiped out; biologists at Columbia University report that over 3.5 billion American chestnut trees were lost in less than 40 years. Groups like the American Chestnut Foundation are working to restore the lost beauty of American chestnut trees.
Fun Facts about Chestnuts:
- Dolly Parton is an awesome lady who happens to love American chestnut trees!
- The famous song “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” is actually named “The Christmas Song” and was written in the 1940s by Mel Tormé. About a million artists have recorded a version of the song, but Nat King Cole performed the very best (though you may prefer the Big Bird and Swedish Chef version, it’s kind of a toss-up).
- Water chestnuts are not even remotely related to chestnuts (although water chestnut corms do resemble chestnuts).
- The first recorded sighting of chestnut blight in the US was at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.
What to Look for When Buying Chestnuts
Chestnuts have a texture and flavor different than any other nut; their meat is sweet and floury in texture.
Look for large, glossy nuts that feel heavy for their size and that are free from cracks or chips. Ensure that your chestnuts haven’t dried out by shaking the nut — pass on any that you hear rattling.
Sustainability of Chestnuts
US chestnut production is low (accounting for less than one percent of total world production, according to the USDA). It not entirely clear how much environmental impact chestnut production has in the US or worldwide; however, according to Jessica Shade, Director of Science Programs at the Organic Center, the most likely source of pollution is from herbicides used during the establishment of chestnut orchards. Dr. Shade goes on to say: “Early after chestnuts are planted they are very susceptible to being out-competed by weeds, so weed control is critical. While some growers (such as in organic production) use herbicide alternatives such as fabric mulches or mechanical weeding, many farms still rely heavily on synthetic herbicides. Additionally, synthetic fertilization of orchards could result in nitrogen pollution and runoff.” More information on chestnut cultivation from the University of California is here.
Also worth noting: most chestnuts appearing now come from Korea, China and Italy, so if food miles are a concern for you, consider seeking out local (or at least domestic) sources of the nuts.
Chestnuts are a cold-weather treat, appearing in markets in the late fall or early winter.
Fresh chestnuts are more perishable than other nuts. Unpeeled chestnuts can be stored in a cool place or in the refrigerator crisper drawer for no longer than a week. Once peeled, check for any mold, as often a couple out of a batch of fresh chestnuts may be moldy.
Cooking with Chestnuts
- Check out this time saving (and maybe a little scary?) technique of cooking chestnuts in a microwave! And if you’re lucky enough to have a fireplace or fire pit, here’s how to roast chestnuts on an open fire.
Chestnuts are very versatile, showing up in everything from stuffing to soup to dessert. The nuts can be roasted (in the oven or on the proverbial open fire), boiled, steamed and pureed. They are also commonly ground into flour, which can be used to make (gluten-free!) bread and other delicacies. You can find fresh chestnuts in the market in the winter, but year-round look for canned or frozen (peeled) chestnuts for an easier chestnut fix.
On the savory side, chestnuts are perfect paired with cruciferous veggies (think Brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage), pork, poultry (especially turkey) and game meats. Chopped, roasted chestnuts make a delightful addition to grain salads and rice dishes. A French delicacy is chestnut soup: roasted (or canned) chestnuts are pureed and transformed into a creamy, filling soup. Chestnut stuffing is traditional in British and American cuisine, commonly made to stuff Christmas goose or turkey. Chestnuts boiled in red wine are traditional Christmas fare in many parts of Italy, especially Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany.
Chestnuts are also sensational in desserts, pairing fantastically with chocolate, vanilla and even citrus. Probably the most famous chestnut sweets are marrons glaces (candied chestnuts), a French delicacy in which peeled chestnuts are candied in (usually) vanilla-scented sugar syrup. Monte Bianco is a classic Milanese dish made with pureed chestnuts, chocolate and whipped cream; the French Montblanc is similar.
Chestnut flour is nutty and delicious, and has the added benefit of being gluten-free. In Italy, chestnut flour pancakes called necci are a Tuscan delicacy (here is a neat slideshow of the traditional method of making necci). Chestnut cake is commonly made with chocolate or with lemon flavorings. Chestnut blossom honey is a delicacy, especially in Italy. Chestnut liqueur is also produced in both France and Italy.
Chestnuts preserve beautifully. Check out this recipe for chestnuts preserved in a congac-infused syrup. This Japanese version simmers chestnuts in syrup for preserving. Chestnuts, cooked and uncooked, also freeze well: here are some methods. Or make your own chestnut liqueur!
Like a lot of tree nuts, chestnuts are loaded with nutritionally good things. They are packed with Vitamin C, Vitamin B6, folate, potassium, copper and manganese. The nuts are high in fiber and are a decent source of protein. Chestnuts also happen to be lower in fat and calories than other tree nuts (like almonds).