Chestnuts: The Taste of December

Chestnuts: The Taste of December

How simple and frugal a thing is happiness: a glass of wine, a roast chestnut, a wretched little brazier, the sound of the sea.
–Zorba the Greek

Foodstuff: Chestnuts

Etymology: From chesten (Old English) to chesten nut (Middle English)

Area of Origin: Asia Minor, modern day Turkey

We may be able to eat strawberries and asparagus in December, but they will always be a pale shadow of their spring and summertime selves. Thankfully, eating seasonally doesn’t have to be about deprivation — instead, savor the winter delicacies that are not only at their peak, but are also perfectly suited to cold weather, hearty appetites and holiday leisure.

Tightly encased in layers of thorns and shiny, hard shells, chestnuts do not make for instant satisfaction; but the reward is well worth the effort. After all, chestnuts are not only a delicious foodstuff, they are an activity unto themselves. What could be more decadent than an afternoon spent lingering in front of the fire, drinking a bottle of fruity red wine, peeling and nibbling a bowl of chestnuts fresh from the oven?

Whether you dream of a Dickensian Christmas, or an Italian autumn festival, chestnuts are the stuff of cold-weather fantasies and ruminations.

We may associate chestnuts with frosty weather and Dickens novels, but these unique nuts first grew in Asia Minor (today Turkey) where they have been eaten since prehistoric times. The Greeks probably discovered the tree during the Persian wars, when their routed armies survived on stores of chestnuts while retreating home. The Greeks spread the trees throughout Europe, and different varieties are now are so deeply entrenched from England to Istanbul that they are considered native species almost everywhere they grow. Still more species of chestnuts are considered native to Japan and Korea, but it is unclear whether all of these types of chestnuts originally descended from one type.

Chestnut trees earned the nickname “bread tree” during the Middle Ages, when small forest communities in Southern Europe used chestnuts rather than wheat as bread flour because they had no access to mills. Throughout Europe chestnuts were commonly eaten by the poor, either as a substitute for bread or potatoes. Many northern European countries celebrate the beginning of winter with St. Simon’s feast day; this feast is often said to begin on the eleventh minute of the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, because it symbolizes the beginning of winter.

Native Americans commonly ate a variety of chestnuts unique to North America, but in the early 20th Century, chestnut trees imported from Asia infected American trees with a fungus that devastated the North American species. Today chestnut growers are slowly bringing American chestnuts back to the market.

Forms of Chestnuts

Whole, fresh
Available from October to March, but most commonly found in December, fresh chestnuts should be firm and heavy for their size, with smooth, glossy shells. Chestnuts are extremely starchy, and will keep for a few days in the refrigerator or in the freezer for a few months. The most prized chestnuts for roasting are typically imported from Italy, and fall into two categories: marroni and castagne. Marroni are larger and sweeter and should be saved for roasting. Castagne are typically boiled and made into a purée or ground for chestnut flour.

Canned, preserved chestnuts are available year-round. Most are imported from France and are available sweetened or unsweetened.

Preparing Fresh Chestnuts

Slit the shell of the chestnuts (traditionally they are cut with an X to prevent them from exploding). Drop in boiling water for 10 minutes. Let cool in the water, then shell as soon as possible.

The best way to roast chestnuts is over hot coals, but since that’s not practical for most people, you can also roast them in the oven on a cookie sheet. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Make an X in each chestnut so they won’t explode and place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Don’t pack them too tightly. Roast until the chestnuts have softened, at least 15-20 minutes. The skin will have begun to peel back. Be careful, they will be very hot! Place the nuts on a kitchen towel, wrap them up, and squeeze them hard — they will make a pleasant crackling noise. Let them sit for a few minutes. As soon as they are cool enough to touch, peel and enjoy.

You can also roast chestnuts in special pans directly over a gas flame. Holes in the pan allow direct contact of the flame but are small enough that the chestnuts don’t drop out. These pans replicate some of the effect of coal roasting.


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