Many people only think of chestnuts during the holidays when they inevitably hear the snowy, song lyrics "chestnuts roasting on an open fire?" But chestnuts have a long and storied history dating back more than a millennia. The Roman economy, at one time, was partially based on the cultivation and trading of chestnuts. The Mediterranean and mountainous areas of Southern Europe have long used chestnuts as a consistent food source and the American Indian relied on the chestnut as a dietary staple for centuries.

In addition to its hundreds of varieties and a habitat that once extended throughout the Northern Hemisphere, chestnuts possess truly unique characteristics. Chestnuts consist of nearly 50% water and contain far more starch and up to 25 times less oil and fat than other nuts ? which is what allows them to play such a versatile role. Often referred to as the grain that grows on trees, chestnuts can be roasted, boiled, pureed, candied, or dried and ground into flour. On the savory side, chestnuts can play a role in breads, soups, salads, pastas, stews, stuffings or simply roasted and enjoyed by themselves. On the luscious side, the sweet, nutty flavor of chestnuts can play a role in numerous desserts including cakes, pastries, and ice creams.

Italian chestnut flour (farina di castagne) is produced from peeling, drying, and grinding chestnuts. However, not all chestnut flours are produced using the same manufacturing process. Many processors dry their chestnuts via wood burning smoke thus giving the flour a strong, smoky aroma not suitable for dessert applications. Other processors dehydrate their chestnuts thus muting the chestnut's natural flavors. Dowd and Rogers procures chestnut flour from a family-owned orchard in southern Italy that dries its chestnuts via hot air. This results in the flour retaining the sweet, nutty flavor of the chestnut. A true Old World ingredient, chestnut flour not only adds flavor to any product but also a sense of culinary history.

Chestnut Tidbits

  • Chestnuts are trees in the genus Castanea and are in the same family as oaks. There are four species of chestnuts: American, European, Japanese, and Chinese
  • Chestnuts trees are long lived (1000+ years) and the American chestnut tree could grow to a height of 100 feet and a diameter of 8 feet or more.
  • American chestnuts once made up about 25 percent of the forests in the eastern United States, with an estimated 4 billion trees from Maine to Mississippi and Florida. The trees helped satisfy demand for roasted chestnuts, and their rot-resistant wood was used to make fence posts, utility poles, barns, homes, furniture and musical instruments. Sadly, these magnificent hardwoods were almost entirely wiped out by a fast-spreading fungus discovered in 1904.
  • "Chestnuts roasting on an open fire?" are from "The Christmas Song" famously recorded by Nat King Cole in 1946 but the words and music are by Mel Torme and Robert Wells who wrote the song in 1945. Since then it's been recorded more than 1,500 times by a diverse array of artists.

 

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