Italy is Europe's biggest producer of chestnuts, and a particularly prized kind is grown in the Mugello region of Tuscany. Though they suffered a reputation as a "poor man's food" in the past, chestnuts have become somewhat of a luxury item during the winter holiday season.
Chestnuts are in season roughly from September to January and are particularly popular around the holidays between Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years. In recent years, their excellent nutritional profile has also sparked a resurgence in interest. When selecting chestnuts, look for the largest ones you can find, with shiny shells, and a weighty feel in your hand.
The Italian language has two names for chestnuts: castagne (for the smaller, more common varieties) and marroni (for the larger, more prized heart-shaped varieties).
As autumn gets into full swing each year, and particularly just before Christmas, roast chestnut stalls and stands appear in seemingly every piazza and on street corners throughout Italy, selling paper cones full of the roast delicacies. Sometimes some red wine or grappa is splashed over them while roasting— even better!
Sagre (food festivals) celebrating the chestnut take place all across Italy in October.
Some would argue that the best way to roast chestnuts is over hot coals, either in a fireplace or an outdoor roasting pit, but when that's not practical, Italians roast them over a gas stove burner, in a simple iron pan with a perforated bottom to allow the flames to touch the chestnuts. Roasting chestnuts produces a delicate and slightly sweet flavor while softening the texture to potato-like consistency.
If you do not have a special chestnut-roasting pan or a gas burner, don't despair. No special equipment is necessary to roast them in your oven.
Roasted chestnuts can be enjoyed on their own, as a festive winter snack or after-dinner treat, included in stuffings for turkey or other large birds, tossed with roasted or pan-roasted Brussels sprouts as a Thanksgiving side dish, or chopped and used as an ingredient in cakes or other desserts.
- 1/2 pound chestnuts (unpeeled, unroasted)
- Preheat the oven to 425 F.
- Using a sharp paring knife, make an X-shaped cut on the round side of each chestnut, to keep them from exploding from internal pressure when heated.
- Arrange them on either a baking rack or a baking sheet.
- Transfer the chestnuts to the oven and roast them until the skins have pulled back from the cuts and the nutmeats have softened (exactly how long will depend on the chestnuts, but at least 15 to 20 minutes).
- Remove the nuts from the oven, make a mound of them in an old towel, wrap them up, squeeze them hard—they should crackle—and let them sit for a few minutes.
- Then peel the chestnuts and eat! They would pair well with a bottle of vino novello (or Beaujolais Nouveau).