IT IS CHESTNUT TIME19/10/2023
Available from the end of September throughout the first winter months, chestnuts are the most popular autumnal fruit in Italy. In the past, people would buy roasted chestnuts from street vendors and stuff them in their pockets to keep their hands warm and, of course, have something nice to snack on. Nowadays street vendors are still there but roasted chestnuts are served wrapped in fancy paper cones and have become a rather fashionable street food.
Legend has it that Italians’ love for chestnuts dates back to Ancient Roman times, when chestnuts were used as a form of currency or trade when there were less crops due to poor weather. Since then, chestnuts have been an important food source and valuable commodity, especially in those parts of the country that were unsuitable for cultivating grains.
In fact, chestnuts are rich in vitamins, minerals and antioxidants (even after cooking) while being low in fat. They also have a high starch content – hence the nickname ‘the cereal that grows on trees’ – that makes them an important source of carbohydrates.
Considered for a long time as a ‘poor ingredient’ and often used as a substitute for potatoes, chestnuts can be ground to make flour for baking, roasted or boiled.
They still feature nowadays as the main ingredient in several traditional recipes such as Castagnaccio (a typical Tuscan cake made from chestnut flour), Necci (a Tuscan-Emilian crêpe made with chestnut flour, water and a pinch of sugar) and Chestnut Bread (originating from Calabria but now popular throughout the country). Polenta di castagne (chestnut polenta) is another popular recipe from Tuscany, made with chestnut flour: its sweet taste is counterbalanced by the soft cheeses that it’s typically served with.
In contemporary Italian cuisine, chestnuts are still processed and cooked according to tradition but they are used also in creative recipes. As a matter of fact, when in season they often feature in restaurant menus as a food delicacy: roasted and paired with a nice glass of Italian sweet wine, boiled in stews or soups, candied or puréed when used in the preparation of wintery cakes like the famous Monte Bianco.
Peeled chestnuts can be frozen at -18/-20 °C for 6-12 months, without altering their nutritional values and distinctive taste which is sweet and slightly nutty.