Chestnuts do seem to be part of our Christmas traditions.
We can all sing the song “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost….” It is a real feel-good classic Christmas song.
It was written in 1945 (by Robert Wells and Mel Tormé) and its acutal title is "The Christmas Song", with the common subtitle "Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire". Originally it was subtitled, "Merry Christmas to You".
This song is the only mention I can find of chestnuts and Christmas!
I did not eat chestnuts when I was growing up.
I believe there are four reasons for this, despite the love of the song:
- Associated with blight
- Local Horsechestnuts are regarded as poinsonous
I believe it was about 10 years ago I decided I should try them. They can be found in the local grocery stores this time of year. Most are imported from Southern Italy, with the large, meaty, and richly flavored Sicilian chestnuts being considered among the best. Portugal, France, China and South Korea also export some to the North American market. They only grow in Northern temperate region.
Amazon is currently selling them for about $30/lb.
Chestnuts are a good food. They are much lower in fat than tradition nuts and the only nut to contain vitamin C! They have lots of trace minerals including calcium and magnesium!
Chestnuts do perish easily. Look for those that are not rattling. They need to be kept in the fridge and eaten soon after purchased. They can be frozen.
Although the song talks about roasting on an open fire, roasting in the oven is fine.
It is very important to slice the top of the chestnut to allow the steam to escape. It will explode otherwise! This can be hard work and a very sharp knife is required.
There is this gadget, made in Italy, that can help.
Roast in a hot oven – 425 degrees, for 15 to 25 minutes. The cut side needs to be up. You’ll need to test one to see if it is done. Remove from the pan, to a towel, and let cool, but still eat them when they are warm. They’ll then be easy to peel. I like to dip them in melted butter!
If you have access to an open fire, this pan, also made in Italy, might be nice to have.
I did try cooking them in the fireplace but there was considerable mess, and I wouldn’t recommend this way.
I wonder if the American song writers have memories of local chestnuts. Their parents may have had them.
It is believed that in 1904 a blight came over from Asian imports and wiped out billions of chestnut trees, particularly along the East Coast. Currently there are efforts to cultivate a disease resistant variety but no great success yet.
There is another tree that we commonly call the chestnut tree but it is the Horsechestnut and is a completely different genus of trees. It has fan shaped (palmately compound) leaves whereas an American Chestnut has a single, tapered, toothed leaf, similar to the leaves of its cousin the Beech tree.
These two chestnut trees do have a similar seed. Though eaten by animals, horse chestnuts are semi-poisonous and not for human consumption. These chestnuts are best tied to a shoelace for a rousing game of conkers - smashing and destroying an opponent’s nut with your own conker!
Chestnuts have been cultivated in the Mediterranean and Asian for thousands of years. The peoples indigenous to North American and early pioneers certainly consumed them.
Water chestnuts are another totally different product - the tubers of an aquatic plant.
I do hope you treat yourself to some fresh chestnuts this season. It would be a good diversion for these cold nights at home.
Chestnuts can also be purchased in several preserved form – packed cans, ground into flour and vacuumed packed. These would not be good for roasting but there are many recipes including stuffing and Christmas Chestnut Soup. There were some bad review of chestnut soup recipes. I think they used the horsechestnuts from their yard!