Italian cuisine is focused on season food and fresh ingredients. Autumn is the time for chestnuts.
The history of chestnuts
Chestnuts are an extremely nutritious food. The Mediterranean area is the credle of the chestnuts where cereals could not grow sufficiently, such as in Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, central Italy. Like also in the Orientales Pyrenees and the Balkans. The consumption of chestnuts was already frequent under the Etruscans and the Greeks. But the Ancient Romans, in particular, were crazy for this food. Pliny the Elder adored roasted chestnuts. However, the most common use, was to dry chestnuts before grinding into flour. Often mixed with other flours, to add consistency and nourishment to recipes. In ancient times the chestnut tree’s nickname was the bread tree due to its fruits rich in starch. Another way to use chestnuts in the past was to pickle them, as example as part of the soldiers’ ration during the expeditions in the form of porridge.
The chestnut tree
Even if today the production is lower than in the past, Italy keeps leading the European first place. By the way, worldwide China retains the leader position. There are different chestnuts varieties. The italian common fruit is the Sweet Chestnut. The reason is that compared to the Asian variety, the local one has a much softer taste. It is quite a difficult plant to grow as it requires a sunny placement and the right slope of the ground, to avoid any water stagnation.
Actually, the chestnut that we usually consume, is the nut or the seed of the plant. Indeed, the fruit is the husk, the prickly shell, which is the cover of the seed. The husk opens on his own, allowing the seeds, the chestnuts, to pop out just when it is completely ripe. Inside a husk you can find four or five chestnuts. As for the marrons, the number of chestnuts per husk is less, more or less three per fruit.
Chestnut vs marron
Marrons are a selection of chestnuts of bigger and fleshy nuts. This means that a marron is larger and more rounded shaped. Furthermore, it is much sweeter than the chestnut and therefore preferable when it comes to preparations such as jams or creams. likewise for the very famous Mont Blanc dessert. The most beautiful and sane chestnuts are perfect for the French Marrons Glacés. The chestnut, on the other hand, is smaller and flatter in shape. Often the thin film around the nut penetrates inside the pulp and for this reason it is more difficult to peel it. As for the flavour, it is certainly less sweet than brown and sometimes astringent, which is why it is more suitable in savory preparations.
The chestnuts in the kitchen
The properties of chestnuts are endless: carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins, copper, manganese, phosphorus and potassium. One of the best way to cook chestnuts is to roast them. Both on the typical perforated pan or under the embers of the fireplace. In this way they will be slightly less easy to digest but very tasty, thanks to the partial caramelization of the sugar. These are the typical roasted chestnuts that can be purchased from the so-called caldarrostai (roasted chestnuts vendors). The vendors who are usually in every corner of the main streets and squares, who still keep alive the tradition of the roasted chestnuts. This traditional activity, anyway, now turned into a tourist trap, vendors are selling caldarroste even out of their season.
Chestnuts in the plate: recipes
Boil your chestnuts for a recipe easy to digest and softer. In fact, in water they maintain a higher level of hydration. These are used for famous recipes such as the Castagnaccio, which can be sweet or less sweet, depending on the recipe. Or such as polenta, a typical Tuscan-Emilian or Corsican recipe. Made with chestnut flour, water and salt, it is served sprinkled with grated cheese or combined with soft cheeses. By the way, in June we have the production of the chestnut honey. An excellent source of proteins, vitamins B and C and mineral salts, this honey also has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial properties which are usually greater compared to other types of honey, as well as its particular resistance to crystallisation. That is why is possible to prepare an amazing gelato with chestnuts.
Wine & food paring with chestnuts
Chestnuts are very sweet fruits. The texture is very pasty. The best wine is a fresh red with light tannins. In Italy there is a tradition to respect: new wine novello wine & chestnuts. The traditional recipe in front of the fireplace, the official open winter season. Demi-sec o sweet wines are perfect to match chestnuts’ desserts.
Need a Recipe?
This wonderful dessert, whose origins are still uncertain, takes its name from that specific geographical area, the Alps, just in between French Savoy and nearby Piedmont region. According to a first version of the facts, Monte Bianco would actually be an Italian dessert invented at the end of the 1400s and, only two centuries later, at the beginning of the 1600s, it was introduced in France. The second version of the story states that Mont Blanc was born around the beginning of the 20th century in the famous Angelina tea room in Paris, and its shape had nothing to do with the highest mountain in Europe, but was inspired by the hairstyle of ladies of the time.
– Chestnuts 700 g
– Bitter cocoa powder 20 g
– Vanilla pod 1
– Salt 1 pinch
– Whole milk 500 g
– Rum 50 ml –
– Sugar 120 g
For the decoration:
– Fresh milk cream 500 g
– Powdered sugar 30 g
– Dark chocolate flakes
You start by washing the fruits and with a knife creating a small cut on the shell. Then place them in a pressure cooker with water and cook them for 10 minutes. (In a regular pan for 30 minutes). When ready, peel the chestnuts while they are hot, also removing the thin internal skin. Put them in a pot covered with milk, the vanilla seeds and the berry itself. Add sugar and salt and boil for about 20 minutes.Then drain the chestnuts through a sieve and mash them with a potato masher to obtain a puree. Stir in the sifted cocoa powder and rum. Mix well with a spatula, then cover with saran wrap and leave the dough to rest in the refrigerator, so that it hardens for at least 30 minutes. In the meantime, whip the cream with the powdered sugar and then transfer everything into a pastry bag. Place a first dollop of whipped cream on the serving plate and then pass through the chestnut dough with a potato masher, forming a mountain. Decorate with more whipped cream as desired, chocolate flakes or marron glacé. Alternatively you can also add meringues to the whipped cream and chestnut mixture.