Chestnuts, from the Mediterranean
The chestnut is an immensely popular food in Portugal’s Mediterranean-inspired gastronomic culture, but it does not enjoy the same status in the rest of the world. One reason for this is its provenance. The chestnut is thought to have originated from the Balkans, Caucasus, and Asia Minor, having amassed popularity in Southern Europe very quickly. The chestnut is part of autumn and winter traditions in Portugal, Spain, France, Italy, and Greece. There are also chestnut trees in England, Turkey, Croatia, and Georgia. Slovakia and the Netherlands are more recent geographies, but the tradition around chestnut consumption is not as important.
The chestnut tree (scientific name Castanea sativa) requires mild temperature and humidity for the chestnuts to develop with good characteristics – and the Mediterranean climate is the most suitable.
Did you know that…?
Chestnuts are not the fruits of the chestnut tree, but their seeds. Technically, burs are the fruits of the chestnut tree.
Chestnuts: hot and tasty… and healthy too!
Suppose you’ve never been to Portugal or northern Spain during autumn, specifically around the magusto. In that case, you may think the chestnuts are the central piece of a very cherished tradition that delights children and grown-ups alike. And you’d be absolutely right. You may not know that there are many other reasons why you should include the chestnut in your diet.
Chestnuts are a source of folic acid, potassium and other nutrients with antioxidant properties such as vitamin C, copper and manganese. They are low in fat (pro tip!) and rich in fibre. A dozen roasted chestnuts have less than 2 g of fat and provide about 30% of an adult’s recommended daily fibre intake.
But that’s not all. They are naturally gluten-free, so people with coeliac disease can – and should! – enjoy this delicious fruit.
Mainly composed of complex carbohydrates, a dozen chestnuts provide approximately 270kcal. And, like the cherry on top of the cake, they are no source of cholesterol.
The chestnut in Iberian tradition
The chestnut is considered a seasonal treat, but it was a staple product in the human diet in ancient times. When potatoes or bread ran scarce, the chestnut rose to the task as fruit and flour.
In Portugal, there are numerous varieties of chestnuts from north to south of the country. Still, the chestnut tree has an autochthon status in the Estrela mountain range (central Portugal).
In Spain, the chestnut is widely appreciated, having some regional celebrations dedicated to it. Between the end of October and mid-November, just like in Portugal, it is part of the tradition to roast chestnuts on a bonfire, where the villagers gather and sing songs while the children jump around the bonfire and the adults taste the young wine of the year.
Apart from the magusto, chestnuts are also appreciated during the winter as a treat and are frequently sold in the streets by a dozen, wrapped in paper cones. If you’ve never bought a dozen “piping hot and tasty” chestnuts while taking a walk in the winter, we strongly recommend it. It warms your hands and heart.
The legend of St. Martin
“Saint Martin was a 4th-century Roman soldier who encountered a beggar on a rainy day. He showed compassion to the poor man by cutting his cape in two and giving half to the beggar so he could shield himself from the rain. God, watching this, became so moved that he stopped the rain and made the Sun shine for a couple of days so that Martin could finish his journey and the beggar could dry his clothes and warm up. Every year, in Portugal, there are a few days of Sun in early November – known as St. Martin’s Summer – and attributed to the generosity of the soldier.”
Chestnuts, a treat for any occasion
And now that you got to know more about the history and tradition of chestnuts, do you know how to eat them? In Portugal, they’re commonly enjoyed boiled in water with fennel and salt, or roasted with salt.
It is really easy to boil chestnuts. One only needs fresh chestnuts, water, fennel or cardamom, and some bay leaf (optional). Chestnuts must be washed thoroughly and, with a sharp knife, make a small cut over the peel before cooking. This will prevent them from blowing up. Boil the chestnuts for about 20 minutes in lightly salted water with some fennel or cardamom, and add some bay leaf for Italian-style chestnuts. When they are ready, let them cool slightly, then peel them using the slit.
There are essentially two ways to roast chestnuts: on the grill or in the oven. If you have an outdoor charcoal grill or firepit, you’ll need a grill pan with holes or a cast iron frying pan. To roast them like this, first, make an incision in the peel – very important! Then, place them in the pan without overlapping, and sprinkle coarse salt over them. Place the pan over the grill or flame and toss them every few minutes so that they don’t burn on one side. When the place of the incision starts to lift and the pulp becomes exposed and golden yellow, they’re ready!
If you prefer the oven, it’s equally easy. Just spread the chestnuts on an oven tray, sprinkled them with coarse salt, and never forget to make an incision in the peel to prevent them from exploding. Bake them at 200 °C for 30 to 40 minutes, tossing them once in a while, until the peel around the incision starts to lift, and the pulp is golden yellow. The slit in the peel will allow you to peel them effortlessly.
But these aren’t the only ways to enjoy chestnuts. This curious little fruit is versatile and can be used in several sweet, savoury, and soup dishes.
Here are some delicious ideas to explore.
If you boil 400 g of (peeled) chestnuts with one onion, two cloves of garlic, two celery leaves to taste, ½ teaspoon of salt, and then purée it, you’ll get a delicious cream of chestnuts to enjoy with a drizzle of olive oil and some croutons on a chilly winter night. You can add chestnuts instead of potatoes to other soups for an earthy flavour.
How about replacing the bread in your Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey with chestnuts? Or use a mix of potatoes and chestnuts to make some earthy, filling gnocchi, and serve with a spinach sauce.
But if you fear that your culinary experiments with chestnuts might be just too forward, how about starting with a simple Sunday roast and adding some peeled chestnuts to the vegetables? Roast them with potatoes and veggies, and you won’t believe how good they are.