Chestnuts, the edible fruit of a tree in the beech family, have glossy brown shells and dark fuzzy membranes that must be removed before use. Often referred to by the French “marrons,” these sweet nuts are sold raw or roasted, whole or in pieces, candied or pureed.
The chestnut group is a genus (Castanea) of eight or nine species of deciduous trees and shrubs in the beech family Fagaceae, native to temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. The name also refers to the edible nuts they produce.
The fruit can be peeled and eaten raw, but it can be somewhat astringent, especially if the pellicle is not removed.
Another method 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 flavor. This method of preparation is popular in northern China as well as in Portugal, Spain, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Slovenia, Croatia, Korea and Southeast Asia, where the scored chestnuts may be cooked in a tub of heated coal pebbles mixed with a little sugar.
Chestnuts can also be peeled and deep fried. One advantage to this method is that any rotten nuts can be discarded at this stage. Deep fry using a basket until the nuts are just starting to float on the surface of the oil. Lift the basket out of the pan, keeping the lid on the basket. Shake the basket in a circular motion, then remove the lid and dry the nuts on newspaper or kitchen roll.
Chestnuts can be dried and milled into flour, which can then be used to prepare breads, cakes, pancakes, pastas, polenta (known in Corsica as pulenda), or used as thickener for stews, soups, and sauces. In Corsica, the flour is fried into doughnut-like fritters called fritelli and made into necci, pattoni, castagnacci, and cialdi.
The flour can be light beige like that from Castagniccia, 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 savory 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. Parmentier, who among other things was a famous potato promoter, extracted sugar from chestnuts and sent a chestnut sugarloaf weighing several pounds to the Academy of Lyon. The continental blockade following shortly after (1806–1814) increased the research into developing chestnuts as a source of sugar, but Napoleon chose beets instead.
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 in the 16th century. Towards the end of 19th century, Lyon went into a recession with the collapse of the textile market, notably silk. Clément Faugier ingénieur des Ponts et Chaussées was looking for a way to revitalize the regional economy. In 1882 at Privas, he invented the technology to make marrons glacés on an industrial scale (although a great deal of the over-twenty necessary steps from harvest to the finished product are still accomplished manually). Chestnuts are picked in autumn, and candied from the start of the following summer for the ensuing Christmas. Thus the marrons glacés eaten at Christmas are those picked the year before.
Sweet chestnuts are not easy to peel when cold. One kilogram of untainted chestnuts yields about 700 g of shelled chestnuts.
Chestnut flavors vary slightly from one species to the next and can vary with growing conditions, but in general the flavor is somewhat sweet and certainly unique. 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.
To peel chestnuts:
Score an X on the flat side of each shell. Set the chestnuts in a pan large enough to hold them in a single layer. Place in a preheated 400 degrees F (200 degrees C) oven for about 15 minutes, until the shells begin to turn brittle and peel back at the X. While still warm, peel off the shells and skin. For other nut varieties, see almonds, Brazil nuts, candlenuts, cashews, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, peanuts, pecans, pine nuts, pistachios, and walnuts.