Thursday, December 1, 2016
Kestaneci-a chestnut vendor in Istanbul with his brazier.
Roasting chestnuts dates back centuries. Chestnuts can be peeled and eaten raw, but it is difficult to peel off the pellicle-the crusty, hairy skin inside the leather-like outer skin of the nut. The pellicle closely adheres to the seed itself, following the grooves present on the surface of the fruit. The poorer the quality of the nut, the more difficult this is to peel. Removing the outer shell and the pellicle is easier if the nut is boiled or roasted. Also, roasting sweetens the nut's raw, harsh flavor.
Chestnut is the edible seed of the chestnut tree.
The chestnut fruit has a pointed end with a small tuft at its tip called fiamma (flame in Italian), and at the other end, a hilum-a pale brown attachment scar. In many varieties, the fruit is flattened on one side.
The three common groupings of chestnuts according to species are European, Asian (Chinese and Japanese), and American chestnuts. Sweet chestnut, Castanea sativa, is the only European species.
Chestnuts should not be confused with horse chestnuts (genus Aesculus), which are not related to Castanea and are named for producing nuts of similar appearance, but which are mildly poisonous to humans, nor should they be confused with water chestnut (family Cyperaceae), which are also unrelated to Castanea and are tubers of similar taste from an aquatic herbaceous plant (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chestnut).
Castanea sativa is a species of flowering plant in the oak and beech family Fagaceae and it is native to Europe and Asia Minor. A long-lived deciduous tree, chestnut is cultivated throughout the temperate world.
The Latin sativa means ‘cultivated by humans’.
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 rather similar. Chestnut-based recipes and preparations are making a comeback it seems.
C. sativa attains a height of 20–35 m and has a wide trunk. The bark often has deep furrows running spirally in both directions up the trunk. The tree requires a mild climate and adequate moisture for good growth and a good nut harvest. Would you believe that it can live more than 2,000 years in natural settings?
Photograph:Dieter Simon, 16 January 2006
Chestnut wood which is used to make furniture is of light color, hard and strong.
A chestnut tree in Istanbul
The oblong-lanceolate, boldly toothed leaves are 16-28 cm long and 5-9 cm broad.
The flowers of both sexes are borne in 10-20 cm long, upright catkins, the male flowers in the upper part and female flowers in the lower part.
In the northern hemisphere, they appear in late June to July, and by autumn, the female flowers develop into spiny cupules-burs that deter predators during growth and maturation of single to multiple brownish nuts and are shed during autumn.
Chestnut is one of those plants that has a long and complex history. Once again we rely on Wikipedia for the following interesting information. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castanea_sativa).
The sweet chestnut was introduced into Europe from Sardis in Asia Minor (today Sart in the Manisa Province of Turkey). Evidence of its cultivation by man is found since around 2000 BC. Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe while on their various campaigns. It was introduced into more northerly regions, and later was also cultivated in monastery gardens by monks. A Greek army is said to have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401–399 BC thanks to their stores of chestnuts. Communities which had scarce access to wheat flour relied on chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates.
The tree was a popular choice for landscaping in England, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. C. sativa was probably introduced to the region during the Roman occupation. More recently, the tree has been planted as a street tree in England, and examples can be seen particularly in the London Borough of Islington.
With a tree grown from seed, maximum production of fruit may begin after 10 to 20 years depending on genetic material, but a grafted cultivar may start production within five years of being planted.
Chestnuts need to be picked when they are still sweet, when their burs have turned brown and have opened enough to expose the nuts inside them. A tarp can be laid under the chestnut tree. The chestnuts still in their burs can be knocked off the tree with a wooden pole if necessary.
For the best quality and size, chestnuts should ripen on the tree until they fall, and then be picked up/harvested promptly. If they stay on the ground too long they may dry excessively. Nut drop usually occurs from mid-September through mid-October.
Chestnuts are packed with minerals-manganese, potassium, copper, phosphorus, magnesium, iron-and vitamins, mainly vitamin C, but also vitamin B6, thiamin, folate, and riboflavin. Unlike other culinary nuts, they have very little protein or fat, their calories coming chiefly from carbohydrates. They have no gluten and they are high in fiber.
We can’t talk about chestnuts and not mention marron glacé-candied chestnut. This sweet appeared in chestnut-growing areas in northern Italy and southern France shortly after the crusaders returned to Europe with sugar. Cooking with sugar allowed creation of new confectioneries.
A candied chestnut confection is thought to have been made around the beginning of the 15th century in Piedmont, among other places. But marrons glacés as such, with the last touch of glazing, may have been created only in the 16th century. Marrons glacés are an ingredient in many desserts and are also eaten on their own.
Marron glacé is not easy to make. The first step is to blanch the chestnuts and peel them. Next, a syrup is prepared with fine sugar and water. The peeled chestnuts are added to the syrup and simmered for 7-8 minutes. Then they are left in the syrup overnight. The following day the chestnuts are boiled in the syrup for 1 minute, then cooled and this boiling and cooling process is repeated 2 or 3 times over the next couple of days until all the syrup is absorbed. It doesn’t end there. They are then spread on a tray covered with baking paper and popped into a preheated oven (70°C) with the oven door open for 2 hours or until they are firm.
This is all easier said than done. That is why marrons glacés need to be bought from a very reputable maker.
Candied chestnuts are a specialty of Bursa, Turkey, where they are called ‘kestane şekeri’-chestnut candy.
Today, China is the top grower of chestnuts followed by Turkey, Italy, South Korea and Bolivia.
Surprisingly, I did not come across any definitive information on how the tradition of eating chestnuts during the Holidays and on New Year’s Eve came about.