If you ask my daughter what her favourite food is, without a moments hesitation, she will tell you that it is chestnuts. It has been her answer for as long as I can remember. Since she was a small thing and her answer made everyone smile, as it was unexpected. Although, perhaps it's not such an unusual answer for Italian kids, from this region at least. Eating roasted chestnuts in the autumn is very popular and is often even part of nursery school. At least it was when my kids were at nusery, 7-10 years ago before the crisis set in. I hope it still continues.....
Every year the nursery school would organise a "castagnata" a chance for the educators, children and their families to get together and eat roasted chestnuts. The fathers and grandfathers spent their time outside organising the chestnut roasting. The ladies served the chestnuts in cones of brown paper.
Italian school isn't obligatory until kids turn 6, it's 4/5 in the UK. The State does however provide "la Scuola Materna"(age 3-6) where parents can choose to send their children or not. Most kids have very fond memories of these schools where they wear a "grembiule"(apron) over their clothes and do lots of play/discovery/singing/motory activity/art/nature study/theatre and thoroughly enjoy themselves with dedicated educators.
|photo from wikipedia|
There are also lots of "fieras" and "sagras" where the hero is the chestnut and you can easily buy chestnuts at the market or even at supermarkets, although they are seen as a special treat as they are quite expensive, some years more than others depending on the yield.
You can also buy them already roasted by vendors who appear on street corners in the autumn.
The best and largest chestnuts (castagne) are known as "marroni".
There is a strange and frequent saying in Italian often accompanied by a rude gesture,"che due marroni!", which refers to the male anatomy, "what two chestnuts!" which can be roughly translated "what a pain in the a***!"
Wild sweet chestnut trees do grow in the alpines close to here , but as many have an owner (official or unofficial) my preferred way to obtain them is to "make a day of it" and pick them myself, but pay for the privilege, preferably with family and friends. There are cultivated "castagneti" which are open to the public, where you can pick your own from the ground and pay by weight. Thick gloves are a must. They usually cost about half the price than in the shops or at the markets.
How to cook Chestnuts
The best way is to roast them on an open fire (caldarroste) or burning embers, shaking and turning them for even cooking. You need a cast iron/steel pan with holes in it. Cook for about 10 minutes and place in a brown paper bag for 10 minutes before serving. No bags? Wrap them in a clean tea towel.
If you haven't got a fire, you can roast them on a gas hob, if you have one. We use a metal ring over a burner to rest the pan (I think it was from an old cake stand). This method is not for everyone as unfortunately it does have it's drawbacks. It's very messy and it does leave a strong charred chestnut smell. Every time one of my family members leaves me a mess to clean up I say never again, but the next time always give in. Who could say no to these? (10-15 mins)
In the oven
Cook in a hot oven (200-220°C) for 20-30 minutes turning them a few times
In the microwave
Soak in cold water for 15 minutes before cooking.
Cook at 750 for 4/5 minutes
Cover them with cold water and add some herbs (bay leaves/rosemary/wild fennel)
Bring to the boil and boil for 40-60 minutes.
Leave them in the water and peel one by one (otherwise peeling becomes difficult)
Chestnuts are really good friends with red wine. They are often served with "vino novello", very young red wine, the Italian equivalent of Beaujolais Nouveau.
further reading @