The Chestnut

by Karen Virag

With its spiky green and rather scary exterior, the chestnut of Paris springs and Christmas carols actually resembles something a centurion might have used to smite an enemy.

Indeed, the chestnut (castanea sativa) has been a popular foodstuff in Europe since the time of the ancient Romans and remains so today.

Chestnuts also grow in North America, and Aboriginal peoples in the eastern US were eating this energy- and nutrient-rich nut, which contains potassium and vitamins B and C, long before Mr Columbus and party arrived. Though the majority of the chestnuts available here are from France and Italy, the Appalachian states once produced a huge chestnut crop. Note the use of the past tense—in the early 1,900s, a fungus destroyed almost the entire population of chestnut trees, which led to the founding, in 1983, of the American Chestnut Foundation, whose goal is to restore the chestnut to its native range.

Fresh chestnuts are available from October through January. When buying, look for a shiny, dark brown exterior, and squeeze them firmly between thumb and forefinger—they should be hard and unyielding. In theory they can be eaten raw, though pig farmers in France and England would tell you to leave that practice to swine—raw chestnuts are used as animal fodder in those countries. For the (usually) more discerning human palate, chestnuts must be cooked. To do this, cut an X on the flat side, then drop them into boiling water (note: one pound fresh yields about half a pound shelled). Return the water to the boil and let those brown beauties bob around in the pot for about five minutes. Remove them from the water, and peel the outer shell and the bitter inner membrane. They are now ready for use. Add them to cabbage dishes—they are especially good with Brussels sprouts—or to braised meat dishes, sausages or game. Chestnuts also make an excellent stuffing for poultry.

Chestnuts can also be dried and milled into flour for breads, cakes and pasta, or used to thicken stews and sauces. Chestnut flour is the original ingredient for polenta, known in Corsica as pulenda, and is also the main ingredient in a tasty traditional dish from northern Italy called castagnaccio, a confection made of chestnut flour, pine nuts, olive oil and rosemary.

Chestnuts have a long history in dessert making as well, from puréed chestnut so popular in central European cafés (which look just a little too much like long skinny worms for the comfort of some of us), to the famous marrons glacées of France (whole chestnuts candied in sugar syrup). Delicatessens, including the Italian Centre, are a good source for such items. Or if you are in the Christmas spirit, you could roast your own chestnuts on an open fire, though a very hot oven is probably a little more practical. Note that you do not have to boil them first, but to avoid losing an eye you must score them with a knife to avoid their exploding when the fruit inside expands. Roasting is the preferred method of street vendors across the globe, whose metal stands with smouldering coals and roasting nuts can be seen from Beijing to Rome to Toronto. Indeed, one of my favourite food memories involves a frosty night in Bologna, Italy, a bag of freshly warm, slightly sweet roasted chestnuts, and a flirtatious nut roaster, who was nuts about both nuts and chests, but that is another story altogether.

Roast Chestnuts

Preheat oven to 425°F with rack in the middle.

Cut an X in the rounded side of each chestnut with a sharp knife. Roast chestnuts, cut side up, in a shallow baking pan until shells curl away from the nutmeats, 20 to 30 minutes.

Wrap hot chestnuts in a kitchen towel and squeeze gently to further loosen shells. Let stand, wrapped, 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Brussels Sprouts and Chestnuts in Browned Butter

Think you don’t like Brussels sprouts? The tangy richness of the browned butter and chestnuts will make anyone a convert.

2 lbs chestnuts

1½ lbs brussels sprouts, trimmed

4 T unsalted butter

2 T minced shallots

fresh herbs (parsley, sage and thyme) finely minced

salt and fresh-cracked ground pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400ºF.

With a sharp knife, score each chestnut ¼-inch deep all around. Arrange them in one layer in a baking pan and roast for 20 minutes, or until shells have just opened. Peel off both layers of skin with a knife while the nuts are still hot.

Steam brussels sprouts for about 12 to 15 minutes, until tender. Drain and refresh with cold water. Cut the sprouts in half or quarters depending on the size of the sprout.

In a large skillet over medium high heat, melt the butter, add the shallots and cook, stirring, about 1 minute. Remove shallots and reserve. Leave the butter in the pan for a few minutes until it browns, then add the chestnuts and sprouts. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, or until heated through. Season.

To serve: Toss with reserved shallots and herbs and serve immediately. Serves 4-6 people.

The Bacon Option: Cook and crumble pancetta or any high quality bacon and add to the dish.

Home-made Glazed Chestnuts (Marrons Glacés)

I have a friend who is so crazy for marrons glacés she would eat them right out of the jar with her fingers, sticky syrup and all. The best chestnuts to candy are the Italian marroni variety. Serve with ice cream, whipped cream or to accompany poached pears.

salted water for boiling

2¼ lbs marroni chestnuts (or the largest available)

2 c sugar

4 c water

1 vanilla bean


Place a large pot of lightly salted water on the stove and bring to a boil. In the meantime, peel the chestnuts, and add to the boiling water. Boil for about 20 minutes, remove pot from the heat, and allow the chestnuts to steep for about 5 minutes. Remove one at a time with a slotted spoon. Cool until they can be handled, then carefully peel the thin membrane from the nuts. Place in a large stainless steel skillet in a single layer. Use two skillets if necessary.

Make a heavy syrup by dissolving the sugar in the water. Add the vanilla bean. When the sugar has completely dissolved, pour the syrup over the chestnuts. Simmer on low heat for about 45 minutes. Take off heat, take out vanilla bean, and let sit in syrup to cool.

Keep the chestnuts in the syrup until ready to use. They will keep for about a week in the refrigerator.

Castagnaccio (Chestnut Cake from the Garfagnana)

Adapted from Mario Batali, Molto Mario.

2 c chestnut flour

2 T sugar

¼ c pine nuts (or walnuts)

½ c + 1½ c milk, very cold

2 T extra virgin olive oil

zest from 1 small orange

2 T chopped fresh rosemary leaves

Preheat the oven to 375º F.

In a large mixing bowl, place the flour, sugar and nuts. Add ½ cup milk and slowly add the rest of the milk, stirring constantly to avoid forming lumps in the batter.

Grease the cake pan with 1 tablespoon of the oil and pour in the batter. Drizzle the top of the batter with the remaining olive oil and distribute the rosemary evenly over the top. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick pierced in the center comes out clean.

Pieno Natale (Lunigiana Christmas Cake)

An old recipe from Benedictine nuns.

1½ lbs cooked chestnuts
2¼ lbs apples
2 lbs bread (about two large loaves) dipped in milk and squeezed dry (Use the life-saver shaped loaf or similar from the Italian Centre Bakery as you need a bread that won’t become a paste when soaked.)
¾ lbs dried figs
½ lbs pitted prunes
½ lbs walnut meats
1 c sugar
¼ lbs shelled hazelnuts
¼ lbs raisins
½ c unsalted butter
generous pinch of anise seeds
zest of 1 lemon and 1 orange.

warm spices to taste (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg)

salt to taste

Preheat oven to 300ºF

Simmer apples, figs and prunes separately in small amounts of water until they begin to fall apart. Mince the nutmeats and put them in a large bowl, then carefully mix in the remaining ingredients. Transfer the mixture to an 8×8 baking tin and cook until the water is evaporated and it reaches the consistency of a firm polenta, about 45 minutes. If the cake starts to brown cover with foil. Serve warm or cold with a glass of Vin Santo.