When it comes to winter edible favourites, chestnuts rise to the top of my list. As a child, chestnuts were synonymous with Christmas Eve. Our family would drive around Kelowna oohing and aching at all the beautiful Christmas light displays. Upon our return home we were treated to a feast of chestnuts served up with, a rarity in our house at the time, Seven up for Dad and Pepsi for the rest of us. I have carried out this tradition whenever possible, even checking out a cruise ship’s kitchen one year while at sea. I still rely on boiling them, but now often substituting wine for the Pepsi. Shortly after we were married, I was introduced to chestnut stuffed duck… what a special dinner that was.
Chestnuts belong to the family Fagaceae, which also includes oaks and beeches. The four main species groups are American, European, Chinese, and Japanese chestnuts. All four groups being to the sub family, Castanea. The unrelated horse chestnut, is not a true chestnut. It does produce nuts of similar appearance, but they are mildly poisonous to humans. They should also not be confused with water chestnuts, which are tubers of an aquatic plant in the sedge family.
Chestnuts 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. Evidence of its cultivation is found since around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe while on their various campaigns. Until the introduction of the potato, whole forest-dwelling communities, 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, "an infinity of people live on nothing else but (the chestnut)".
Native Americans were eating the American chestnut species, long before European immigrants introduced their stock to America. In some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains, one-quarter of hardwoods were chestnuts.
Today, the demand for the nut outstrips supply. Since the mid-20th century, most of the US imports are from Southern Italy, with the large, meaty, and richly flavored Sicilian chestnuts being considered among the best quality for bulk sale and supermarket retail.
Chestnuts can eaten fresh, roasted or boiled, used in baking, preserved in sugar, or dried and ground into a flour. Several years ago, our Kelowna Canadian Italian Club served up an after dinner treat of roasted chestnuts. They were on the small side, but were very easy to clean and tasted wonderful. I tracked down their source but soon found out they were sold out for the year. But, one day, while waiting for Jane at an appointment, another client entered and brought a bag of chestnuts to the receptionist. Of course I had to ask where she got them from. The subsequent conversation led me to meet a fellow old time Kelowna family and a supply of chestnuts from their small acreage. Winter evenings have become better than ever before. Freshly cooked chestnuts and a glass of wine are the perfect way to end a day.
Life is good!
Life-long Gardener Don Rampone shares his tips and advice for gardening