Chestnuts have started their season!
Here in the Alps, chestnuts used to be a substitute for cereals in times where they were hard to find.
They have been a staple food in southern Europe, Turkey and southwestern and eastern Asia for millennia, largely replacing cereals where these would not grow well, if at all, in mountainous Mediterranean areas. Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe while on their various campaigns. The Greek army is said to have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-399 BC thanks to their stores of chestnuts. Ancient Greeks like Dioscorides and Romans such as Galen, wrote of chestnuts to comment on their medicinal properties. Until the introduction of the potato, whole forest-dwelling communities which had scarce access to wheat flour relied on chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates. In some parts of Italy, a cake made of chestnuts is used as a substitute for potatoes. In 1583, Charles Estienne and Jean Liébault wrote that "an infinity of people live on nothing else but (the chestnut)". In 1802, an Italian agronomist said of Tuscany that "the fruit of the chestnut tree is practically the sole subsistence of our highlanders", while in 1879 it was said that it almost exclusively fed whole populations for half the year, as "a temporary but complete substitution for cereals".
I love them roasted or boiled, but their culinary uses are many and varied!
One the most common ways of eating the fruit involves roasting, which does not require peeling. Roasting requires scoring the fruit beforehand to prevent undue expansion and "explosion" of the fruit. Once cooked, its texture is similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet, and nutty flavour. This method of preparation is popular in northern China as well as in Spain, Turkey, Greece, France, Italy, Korea and Southeast Asia.
Chestnuts can be dried and milled into flour, which can then be used to prepare breads, cakes, pancakes, pastas (it is the original ingredient for polenta), or used as thickener for stews, soups, and sauces.
The flour can be light beige like that from Castagnaccio, or darker in other regions. It is a good solution for long storage of a nutritious food. Chestnut bread can stay fresh for as long as two weeks.
The nuts can also be eaten candied, boiled, steamed, grilled, or roasted in sweet or savoury recipes. They can be used to stuff vegetables, poultry, fowl and other edibles. They are available fresh, dried, ground or canned (whole or in puree).
A fine granular sugar can be obtained from the fermentation of the juice, as well as a beer; the roasted fruit provides a coffee substitute.
Candied chestnuts (whole chestnuts candied in sugar syrup, then iced) are sold under the French name marrons glacés or Turkish name kestane şekeri ("sugared chestnuts"). They appeared in France and Northern Italy in the 16th century. Chestnuts are picked in autumn, and candied from the start of the following summer for the ensuing Christmas.
Chestnut-based recipes and preparations are making a comeback in Italian cuisine, as part of the trend toward rediscovery of traditional dishes and better nutrition.
Marrons glacés are one of the gastronomic glories of Piedmont. Candied chestnuts appeared in chestnut-growing areas in the North of Italy and South of France, shortly after the crusaders brought sugar back with them as one result of their endeavours. A candied chestnut confection was probably served around the beginning of the 15th century, among other places in Piedmont, a northwestern area of Italy close to the border of Switzerland and France. But marrons glacés as such (with the last touch of 'glazing'), may have been created only in the 16th century. Lyon and Cuneo dispute the title for the addition of the glazing, or icing, that makes the real Marron glacé.
Marrons glacés may be eaten on their own. They are also the basis for many desserts, among which is the famous “crème de marrons”, flavoured with a hint of vanilla, and itself a staple ingredient for other desserts, such as the Mont Blanc (puréed with cream), ice creams, cakes, sweet sauce or garnish for other desserts...