The Chestnut, Miracle Nut
The chestnut is the product of the chestnut tree, coming from a seed. They grow inside spiky, waterproof casing called husks. There are four main species of the chestnut tree: the Chinese chestnut, the Japanese chestnut, the American chestnut, and the European chestnut.
The chestnut or Castanea sativa (also known as the European chestnut or the sweet chestnut) is an autumnal food also known as an “accessory fruit” cultivated and enjoyed since Prehistoric times. The wild chestnuts first consumed were considered as a winter food in Europe and Asia Minor. During the Antiquity, the chestnut trees were domesticated, starting in France with the first chestnut plantations in Cévennes, an area which became a significant production centre in medieval Europe. Authors such as Gabrielli, 1994, identified these cultures as “chestnut civilisations”, as in various regions of Europe, the cultivation of chestnut became so dominant and essential to the survival of mountain populations. During the Middle Ages, “the bread of the woods” flour was used as a substitute for wheat in times of shortage. Today, worldwide consumption mainly takes the form of by-products and requires industrial cultivation, carried out at production centres in America, Asia and in Europe. However, chestnut-picking in the forest remains a very popular leisure activity.
On the nutritional side, the chestnut is an amazing source of Vitamin C and antioxidants. Consider that 64 grams of raw chestnuts remains low in fat and gives you 15 to 20% of your daily Vitamin C intake. It also contains gallic & ellagic acids, of which the concentration increases when the chestnuts are cooked. A regular consumption of chestnuts in the autumnal diet supports heart health with the powerful antioxidant intake of potassium and magnesium. It improves digestion by being an excellent source of fiber, PLUS they are GLUTEN FREE! It helps control blood sugar as well thanks to the fiber intake, which helps the body to slowly absorb carbohydrates rich in glucose AND the chestnut’s glycemic index is VERY LOW with a value of 54.
You can start looking for this powerful nut in grocery stores or simply try and find some woods to go pick them up yourself, from October until December. The chestnut tree has a straight trunk covered in layers of stems with lengthwise cracks and alternative, fleeting leaves up to 20 cm long. The spiky husks or burrs on the ground will help you identify the tree. Pick up the ones you find on the floor. You’ll manage to gather quite a lot with open burrs. Wearing a pair of gloves, open them up and pick up the undamaged nuts inside, store in a container and freeze if conservation is desired.
When consuming raw chestnuts, be aware of their content in tannic acid, meaning it could cause stomach irritation, nausea or the worst, liver damage or kidney failures. That said, they remain an excellent nutritious food, low in calories and a great source of amino acids, monounsaturated fatty acids, antioxidants, phenols and Vitamin C. Most of these nutrients will remain close to intact if the chestnut is cooked at the right temperature. Here are some delicious possibilities of consuming the chestnut after roasting it:
Purée chestnuts in a blender and add to warm crepes or pancakes
Roast chestnuts and use them instead of croutons on a salad
Sprinkle chopped, roasted chestnuts on baked corn or butternut squash
candied chestnuts = marron glacé
Castanea sativa, the most common variety that provides the majority of chestnuts sold in the grocery stores today, a tree species that, perhaps more than any other in Europe, has attracted particular human attention and is still one of the most consumed Autumn and Winter food.