What is the origin of the Chestnut?
The European or Spanish Chestnut actually originated in Asia Minor. It is believed that the ancient Greeks were the first to introduce and cultivate chestnuts in the Mediterranean region about 3.000 years ago. The Romans were later responsible for extending the cultivation into northwest and central Europe, and it is thought that the Latin name Castanea originated from the town of Castanea in the Roman Empire where the tree was especially common.
There are four main species of chestnuts along with several minor species. The four main species are the Japanese chestnut (Castanea crenata), the Chinese chestnut (Castanea mollissima), the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), and the European chestnut (Castanea sativa).
The European chestnut is a large growing (~20 m) and wide spreading tree which originated from around Turkey and the Black Sea region of southern Russia. The nuts are quite variable but superior fruiting varieties possess good size, sweet taste and have easy to remove inner skins. This species is also known as the sweet chestnut or the Spanish chestnut in English speaking countries.
What is the origin of the Chestnuts from Andalucia?
Fifteenth Century settlers from the North of Spain brought chestnut saplings from their own Chestnut Forests in Castile and Leon and found the ideal climate in the Western Sierras of Andalucía. Since this time, the chestnut tree has played a vital role in the culture and economy of this region. Not only has the chestnut been sold and traded, but its wood provides excellent timber. All the old houses of the Sierra de Aracena have beams made of Chestnut wood. And the fine vernacular joinery of the doors and shuttered windows is always made of durable Chestnut wood.
There are many sub varieties of Chestnuts in this region, each with exotic names – the Diego Vázquez, a darker, rounded nut, the Comisaria, a smaller but particularly sweet variety, and the Lechona, a corpulently round and large fruit, are but three. Real Chestnut aficionados each have their own favorite.
Are Chestnuts Different than other Nuts?
Chestnuts have a nutritional composition that sets them apart from all other nuts. Chestnuts are ~50% water when fresh, which makes them highly perishable. Chestnuts are very low in fat and higher in starch than other nuts, making them less caloric. Two ounces of chestnuts contain 86 calories, which is about one quarter that of other nuts. They also are a good source of fiber (about 5 grams for 2 ounces), making them a tasty and filling snack!
How does one prepare Chestnuts?
One must first remove the outer shell and inner bitter tasting skin to obtain the edible kernel and although chestnuts can be eaten raw after peeling they are usually cooked in some way. Cooking methods vary widely but simply can be done by boiling the in-shell nuts whole for half an hour and then cutting them in half and scooping out the soft kernel flesh inside using a teaspoon. Another common way is to roast in-shell chestnuts in the oven, over hot embers or in the microwave, but you MUST pierce the shell with a small cut or cut them in half beforehand with a knife to prevent them from exploding when they cook!
Once you have peeled your chestnuts they may be cooked in a wide variety of ways – boiled, roasted, steamed, microwaved, pureed, soups, stuffings, sweet desserts and so on. The nuts can also be dried and ground into an excellent quality flour for bread, biscuits, gravies etc.
The culinary qualities of the chestnut are much under valued. Roasted Chestnuts from the fire or oven with a little butter and salt remind us of sitting in front of a roaring fire on a cold winter day. Its delicious, subtle mealiness adds life to everything from warm salads to Mediterranean soups to tarts. Their high nutritious value also makes them great on their own as a snack!