All About Chestnuts in Italian Cuisine

Chestnuts. Luisa Maria Cruz/Getty Images

The chestnut has long played an important part in the Mediterranean diet; Homer mentions chestnuts, and Pliny even says which kinds of chestnuts were grown in Southern Italy. With time, chestnut cultivation spread throughout the Peninsula, because they were one of the few food crops that could be grown on steep mountain slopes and also one of the few crops that could be expected to provide sustenance through the long winter months: By the middle ages, they were the staple food of the peasants in large parts of Italy, from Piemonte to Lazio and on down.

In some areas, for example, Tuscany's Lunigiana and Lucchesia, much of the economy revolved around the chestnut crop, which people gathered in the fall and worked long into the winter to sort, process, package, and sell. Then, come spring, it was time to tend the chestnut groves again. It was backbreaking work, so it's also small wonder that with improving economic conditions, the majority of Italy's chestnut farmers sought out other jobs.

For those who remained, this has provided a bonanza - chestnuts are tasty and nutritious (indeed, the aristocracy never disdained them they way they did some other staples of the poor), and now that it's a seller's market, prices have soared. Though a chestnut connoisseur will be able to point out a half-dozen or more varieties of chestnut, what's sold in Italian markets comes in two main types: castagne, which are generally small (about 1-inch high and often fairly flat-sided) and marroni, which are voluptuously rounded, firm, and larger - up to 1 1/2 inches high, and with a curved front.

In selecting chestnuts (and this is especially true if you live where they are imported), trust your eyes. Their skins should have a healthy glow, and a beautiful brown shine. If they look dim or mottled they may have mold - pass them by. They should also be firm and feel solid, with no air between the skin and the underlying flesh - wizened nuts may be old.

Finally, the skins should be blemish free. In particular, look for pinholes, which likely mean worms.

Once you have your chestnuts, you have to decide what to do with them. One of the easiest and tastiest options is to roast them. Some country households had terracotta colanders they'd fill with chestnuts and settle into the coals, while others used lidded iron pans with holes cut into them, mounted on long handles (a popcorn popper lined with tinfoil that has holes punched through it would be a good substitute).

If you lack a fireplace and cannot find a chestnut roasting pan (they're sold by a number of mail order outfits) I suggest you purchase a cheap, thin, steel skillet (non-stick surfaces are not necessary here) and punch about a dozen holes into the bottom with a thick nail. Before roasting your chestnuts, make an X-shaped cut into the round side of each to keep them from exploding. Put the chestnuts into the roaster, sprinkle them lightly with water, and cook them over brisk heat for 10-20 minutes (depending on their size), shaking them frequently to keep them from burning. When they're done, the skins will have pulled back from the nuts, and the nutmeats will be firm but fork-tender - charred spots indicate insufficient shaking.

Sprinkle them with a few drops of red wine (optional), wrap them in an old cloth, squeeze them until they crackle, and let them sit in a warm place for five minutes. Peel back the cloth and enjoy! Few things are more pleasant that sitting around a fire with friends while eating roasted chestnuts and sipping a light wine such as Vino Novello or Beaujolais Nouveau (its French equivalent).

Don't have a roasting pan and don't want to sacrifice a regular pan, or don't have a gas stove? You can also roast chestnuts in the oven: Preheat your oven to 425 F (210 C), and make X-shaped cuts in the round sides of the nuts. Arrange the chestnuts either on an oven rack or on a cookie sheet and roast them until the skins have pulled back from the cuts and the nutmeats have softened (exactly how long will depend upon the chestnuts, but at least 20-25 minutes).

Wrap them as above and let them sit in a warm place briefly, and then enjoy them.

Of course, in the past, the farmers who survived on chestnuts didn't sit around the fire roasting them, though some of their crop certainly did meet that end. The rest went into a drying hut, whose design (and name) varied from region to region; it was generally a small two-storey building, and come harvest time they would light a fire in the ground-floor room. Directly above the fire was a stone heat shield to protect the beams supporting the second floor, which was spread with the chestnut crop; the heat rose and dried out the chestnuts, while the smoke that filtered up killed the worms that do get into chestnuts and might otherwise have eaten their way through the harvest. The fire was never allowed to go out, and on chilly nights the farmers and their families would gather in the fire room to enjoy the warmth and pass the time, swapping stories and telling tales.

Dried chestnuts can either be boiled, ground up into flour, or used as ingredients in other dishes.

Italian Chestnut Recipes:

[Edited by Danette St. Onge]