Chestnuts, the "seed" of traditions and memories
I still remember the first time I ever saw a chestnut within its prickly green home. I was around 7 and living in the south of Italy. By that time I of course had eaten my fair share of chestnuts, that were traditionally roasted after every Sunday meal at Nonna’s every Autumn. However the honor of going to pick chestnuts was not bestowed upon me until my father and grandfather thought I was old enough to go into the mountains with them and able to be aware of my surroundings especially on the lookout for the venomous green little snakes that were the topic of every mountain trip when it was time to gather the mushrooms or chestnuts.
I remember my little weaved brown basket and my dad and grandpa both taking out their heavy duty working gloves and thinking to myself, “strange why would you need gloves for chestnuts?” as I had only ever seen them in their raw state of silky brown skin. Well, soon I found out why they needed those gloves…..
Chestnuts are actually considered the seed of the chestnut tree. They grow inside a green cocoon like shell that is called a burr that cracks when ripe in the Fall season revealing the brown shelled chestnut that we see in most grocery stores today. They are very versatile and can be boiled, canned, made into a baking flour, used in desserts or (my favorite) roasted. (See below for a roasted chestnut recipe). They pair phenomenally well with bold red wines and can be added to your next thanksgiving stuffing or even coated in a delicate sugar coating such as the Marrons Glaces offered by Baratti & Milano, an Italian legendary confectionary company that carry a variety of unique and luxurious treats. Their Marrons Glaces make a wonderful gift your next fall gathering and their treats have a way of making you forget where you are while indulging in them.
Chestnuts are such a precious commodity in Italy, at one point even being used as an item to barter in areas that could not grow them because of their versatile and filling nature. On November 11th, Italy celebrates the Feast of Saint Martin, whose motto “A San Martino, Castagne e Vino” translates to “on the feast of Saint Martin, chestnuts and wine”. On this feast, chestnuts are roasted and served with Novello wine, a wine specifically made quickly to be had by beginning of November and meant to be consumed sooner rather than aged. If you are in Italy for the feast of Saint Martin you might notice one of the traditions of San Martino still lives on where, once the chestnuts are cooked and peeled, they are dropped in wine and let to soak and then eaten for dessert! The feast of Saint Martin (the Christian Saint Martin of tours) is a celebration intended to celebrate the hard work for the agriculture season of summer and fall and marks a period of rest for farmers. The time of harvest is over and it is finally time to relax and enjoy the fruits of one’s labor.
So that day, when I went to go down and reach to grab an exposed chestnut with luscious brown and smooth skin I scraped my hands right on its green and prickly shell and by the time I turned 8, I too was given a pair of work gloves so that I could help harvest the chestnuts. My favorite part? Watching them roast on an open fire and having the adults peel them for me to eat of course!
To shop Baratti & Milano’s Marrons Glaces click here;
Roasting fresh chestnuts:
Cut an X on the flat side of each chestnut. Place in heavy skillet with dash of oil or in chestnut pan (long-handled skillet with perforated bottom); cook over open fire, or in pan over medium heat or in 425°F (220°C) oven until shells curl back, nut is soft and inner brown skin can be easily removed, up to 15 minutes.
Pour yourself a glass of red wine, light a fire, and eat warm!