Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Behold, the chestnut

This chestnut was planted between a fig tree and an olive tree (Such bountiful treats!) 
on a hillside just outside of Moltalcino in the Val d'Orcia region of Tuscany. 

Chestnuts and chestnut products are very highly revered in Italy, but unless you have some old school Italian (or European) roots in you, I tend to think most people in America only scratch at the surface of their culinary potential—using them only for chestnut stuffing at Thanksgiving. They are missing out of course, because chestnuts can be used in any course of a meal—from soup to, um... nuts! The starchy treats are not only delicious roasted as a snack, but they also make for good soups, savories and sweets.  In addition, busy bees make a wickedly rich and dark honey from chestnut's highly fragrant spring blossoms. Here's a sampling of the possible bounty: chestnut soup with crispy prosciutto...chestnut ravioli... chestnut flour crepes filled with ricotta and drizzled with chestnut honey... chestnut cake, caramelized chestnuts... or how about a handful old roasted chestnuts with a nice 20-year old tawny Port? Hmmm? Here are two excellent pieces about chestnuts written by Gina DePalma, the pastry chef at Mario Batali's NYC restaurant, Babbo—one on chestnuts, and one on chestnut honey.

I remember chestnut trees in our neighborhood growing up in Beverly, Mass. The textured husks (not the spiky, sea urchin-like husks shown in these photos) were always a mystery to me as a young girl, and the prize inside—the silky smooth skinned nuts—were always a treasure of sorts. We would carve an X on the bottom of each chestnut and roast them in the oven before eating. Sadly, disease killed off a lot of the chestnut trees in the U.S.A., though thankfully some survived, and they are making a comeback. I have a spindly little 5-foot tall chestnut tree in my yard that came from a volunteer seedling that a squirrel had planted in my my mom's yard, and I am hoping for my own bounty of chestnuts... one day. My friends Elissa and Harper Della-Piana have an enormous, half a century old (at least) chestnut tree in their yard in Wenham. I was lucky enough to visit this tree last spring to smell the heady blossoms. Devine indeed,  though difficult to describe. Elissa and Harper collect baskets of the nuts each fall, wrestling them away from greedy squirrels, and make several chestnuts treats, most notably Monte Bianco—a mountain shaped dessert made of a milk infused chestnut puree, that is layered and drizzled with chocolate, and finally covered with whipped cream. (I am not sure if Elissa incorporates chocolate or not. Still how bad can that be?) Even if you aren't going to Italy any time soon you'll see chestnuts at the markets very soon, and you can buy chestnut honey or chestnut flour through Amazon. You'll find a Google of chestnut recipes on the web, so get adventurous and creative with chestnuts!

I'll always remember the smokey aroma of chestnuts roasting in the streets of Rome! 
We bought a bag full of warm chestnuts from a street vendor there, and nibbled 
on them while doing some serious people watching on the Spanish Steps.

Baskets full of gorgeous chartreuse chestnuts collected by Elissa and Harper Della-Piana

a jar of Italian chestnut honey

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