© Denzil Green
Edible Chestnuts mostly come from the Castanea Chestnut tree. They are not related to horse Chestnuts or water Chestnuts. In English, this tree is often referred to as the “Spanish Chestnut” tree. The North American tree that produces edible Chestnuts is sometimes referred to as the “Sweet Chestnut” tree. There is also an Asian Chestnut tree that produces edible Chestnuts. Edible Chestnuts are also called sometimes “Sweet Chestnuts.”
Chestnut trees, to produce effectively, have to be managed like orchards. You need other Chestnut trees nearby for pollination. Each tree will put out male and female flowers, but they tend to pollinate only with flowers from another tree. The trees have to be tended. The best Chestnuts come from trees that are grafted. The trees start producing nuts when they are 15 years old, and get into their production prime when they hit 50 years old. The European Castanea trees won’t grow much further north than Brittany in France. The trees can also be grown for their wood.
The fleshly skin that covers a Chestnut grow is called a “burr.” Some of the burrs will crack on the tree or when they hit the ground; others have to be cracked manually. Once out of the burr, Chestnuts still have a bitter skin, that will crack when roasted. Horse Chestnut burrs have very large, spiky bristles on them. The burrs of Edible Chestnuts are covered in fine bristles.
Two types of Chestnuts come from the European Castanea Chestnut tree. The same tree will produce both types of Chestnuts, at the same time. We don’t really have words that make the distinction in English, so we must rely on French words.
The most common type of Chestnut produced by the European Chestnut tree is called in French “châtaigne” (“Castagna” in Italian.) It grows inside its burr divided into 3 or more parts by skin between them. Each nut is flat-sided and small, only about an inch or so big (2.5 cm.) Street vendors prefer these smaller “chataigne” Chestnuts, because they can fit more in a bag. They are also cheaper and therefore more suited price-wise to be a snack food.
The other type of Chestnut produced by the European Chestnut tree is called in French “marron.” Inside the burr, the nut grows as a whole kernel, not split up. The nut is rounded, and about 1 1/2 inches wide. (4 cm.) They are sweeter than the “châtaigne” type, being about 15% sugar. These are the ones used for Marrons Glacés. They have always been considered more desirable and are consequently more expensive. While the “châtaigne” type would in the past be used for animal feed, especially for pigs, “marrons” would never be fed to animals as they were too valuable.
If more than 12% of the Chestnuts that a tree produces are “châtaignes”, the tree is called a “châtaignier.” Otherwise, it is called a “marronier.” Chestnut trees can be encouraged to produce more “marrons” than “châtaignes” through grafting and careful tending.
Chestnut leaves are used to wrap some cheeses in.
Most fresh Chestnuts (meaning not canned, jarred or frozen) that you will see at North American stores and markets are imported from Europe. Chestnuts are almost always sold out of their burr. When buying fresh Chestnuts, choose Chestnuts that are deep, consistent brown and shiny, that are firm and solid. Avoid any with pinholes which is a sign of worms. You can get frozen, already peeled Chestnuts that are more convenient to cook with. The peeling is done by machines that are made in Italy by companies such as Boema.
Chestnuts have thin shells. Consequently, there isn’t as much wastage with them as there is with other nuts. After shelling, they will still weigh about 3/4 of their already shelled weight.
When fresh, they can be roasted, baked, or boiled. Dried, they are usually made into flour. They can be used as stuffing for poultry or made into purées. Sliced Chestnuts with Brussels Sprouts is a British classic, as is Chestnut stuffing in roasted grouse.
Peeling lots of Chestnuts is a real pain and a not very happy way to spend Christmas Eve getting them ready to be used as stuffing the next day. To make them easier to peel, you can freeze them first. Or place them in a pot, cover with water and bring to the boil. Then remove from the heat and drain. Remove the shells and then rub off the skin that will remain over the nut (you may wish to use a tea-towel or a piece of good quality paper towel to do this with). The skin is bitter, so you want to get it off. (Or, to avoid all that, snag the last bag of frozen, ready-to-use ones.)
To roast Chestnuts, you need to make a way for the steam to escape so that they don’t explode. Place a Chestnut on a cutting board flat side down, so that it won’t roll. Make a short slash in the skin with a serrated knife (any knife will do, but serrated is easier and is safer as it will slip less), or poke them with a fork. Bake on a baking sheet in oven at 400 F (200 C) for 10 minutes or until the skins split and the nut inside starts to brown. Remove from oven, let cool until you can handle them safely and comfortably. Peel both the shell and the brown papery skin underneath, which is bitter. Don’t let them get too cold before you peel them, or it becomes very hard to remove the brown skin. If you are roasting a lot at once, you will have to move fast before they cool off on you. If they do, zap them in the microwave for 30 seconds or so.
To roast Chestnuts in the microwave, make a slit in them as per above. Zap a few Chestnuts at first on high for 3 minutes until you figure out the right time for your microwave.
To blanch Chestnuts, boil for 4 minutes, then drain, wrap in a tea towel and squeeze them hard to pop the skins.
Chestnuts are one of the lowest fat nuts. They are only 2 per cent fat (compared with 73% fat for macadamia nuts).
100g fresh Chestnuts: 199 calories
100g dried Chestnuts: 371 calories
A heavy diet of Chestnuts leads to flatulence.
Horse Chestnuts are inedible and dangerous to eat.
Châtaigne: 100 nuts per 2 1/2 pounds (1 kg).
Marrons: 40 – 50 nuts per 2 1/2 pounds (1 kg).
Fresh Chestnuts in their shell stored at room temperature should be used up within a week. If you store them in the fridge in a plastic bag, you should use within two weeks. European farmers with good storage conditions say they can be stored for up to 3 months — that’s what got many Europeans through the winters.
To freeze, slit them first so that they are ready to roast (if that’s what you think you’ll be doing with them).
Chestnut trees have been grown in China possibly since 4,000 BC and in Japan since the first millennium.
The Greeks were probably the first Europeans to grow the European Chestnut trees. The Romans were deliberately cultivating these trees by 37 BC. It was probably they who introduced them into Britain. They ground Chestnuts into flour and often mixed the flour with wheat flour. They also commonly cooked Chestnuts with lentils.
Some Medieval farmers in Britain grew Chestnuts, but whether the nuts were châtaignes or marrons they were used mainly either for livestock food or for grinding into flour. The British growers didn’t really distinguish between the two kinds of nuts, the way that Europeans did.
Chestnuts were an important source of food all throughout the Dark and Middle Ages to many in areas such as Italy, Spain, Portugal and France. The trees would conveniently thrive in mountainous areas, which would have been well drained, which the trees like, and where not much else would grow. The poor would gather the Chestnuts from the forests to eat, or would let their pigs graze on the Chestnuts on the forest floor. Peasants who were reliant on Chestnuts would often eat between 2 1/2 and 5 pounds a day (1 and 2 kilos) during the winters. Marrons, however, when gathered, would be sold to the richer town folk.
Polenta was made with among other things, Chestnut meal, before corn was discovered and brought to Europe.
Chestnuts began to decline in popularity in France as a food staple as wheat became more affordable from about the mid 1700s.
Parmentier, who helped to popularize potatoes in France, felt in 1780 that Marrons would be a good source to manufacture sugar from, but Napoleon chose instead to back research into sugar beets.
Many Chestnut trees were destroyed in Europe by very hard winters in 1709, 1789 and 1870, and again between 1840 and 1860 by the “ink” blight.
A blight in the 1930s killed most of the native North American Chestnut trees that bore edible Chestnuts (“Sweet Chestnut Trees”). The blight arrived on Chestnut trees imported from Asia. Though over 3 1/2 billion trees were destroyed, the North American trees are now slowly making a comeback. They are being grown in Oregon and as of 2003, there was even a Chestnut Growers Cooperative in Michigan, which is a hopeful sign, and its members were actually open for business, selling Chestnuts. As this stage, though, the Americans aren’t distinguishing between châtaignes and marrons. They are all châtaignes and just sold as Chestnuts. If the trees survive the blight (which is still present), their next challenge will be to re-introduce Chestnuts to the North American table.
Literature & Lore
“But we give that fruit to our Swine in England, which is amongst the delicaces of Princes in other Countries; and being of the larger Nut, is a lusty, and masculine food for Rustics at all times. The best Tables in France and Italy make them a service, eating them with Salt, in Wine, being first rosted on the Chapplet; and doubtless we might propagate their use, amongst our common people…” — John Evelyn, Sylva, Chapter 7, “Of the chess-nut”, 1664.
|When white snow covers
the mountains in January
may my braiser be full
of acorns and Chestnuts
— Luis de Góngora,
Spanish poet, 1581
|Cuando cubra las montañas
de blanca nieve el enero,
tenga yo lleno el brasero
de bellotas y castañas…
“Peeling a chestnut is a task women hate. It makes the arm ache; one may slice off a finger. Any way you do it, chestnut peeling is tedious. Now chestnuts come prepeeled, precooked, in 18-ounce jars, packed in the lightly salted water in which they are cooked. The chestnuts are whole—no broken specimens in our sample, at least—and perfectly peeled, not a fleck of skin left. This new product for the American cook who has no patience with tedium is the idea of B. V. Ossola, vice-president of the J. Ossola importing Company of New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Miami… This week, Betty came calling with a satchel of samples. She asked for a can opener and a bowl and zipped out the chestnuts, 32 the jar-count, these to purée and serve as a vegetable, to use in soup or as a stuffing for turkey.” — Paddleford, Clementine (1898 – 1967). Food Flashes Column. Gourmet Magazine. July 1950.
Romans called the nut “castanea”, because the tree was very abundant in Castanea, a town in Greece (though we’re really not sure whether they meant Kastanaia in Pontus or Castana in Thessaly).
The French word “châtaigne” comes from castanea. Very often, when you see an “â” in French, there used to be an “as” in the word. Think of château and castle.
In French, Horse Chestnuts are called “Marrons d’Inde” or “Châtaignes de cheval”.
The Japanese Chestnut tree is “Castanea crenata”. The Chinese Chestnut tree is “Castanea mollissima”.
BBC Radio 4. Food programme for Sunday, 22 December 2002 12:30 pm to 1:00 pm on chestnuts, presented by Sheila Dillon.