One of Italy’s most ancient foods, chestnuts have been part of the cuisine since the time of the Roman Empire.
Mildly sweet and starchy, the little nuts pack tons of nutrition into a small package; they’re high in essential vitamins and minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and iron. They can also keep for long periods of time, and because of this, they’ve been beloved by armies on the move, royalty, and peasants alike for millennia.
Chestnut trees thrive in cool, hilly climates like the Apennine and Alpine mountain ranges that run the length of the country, and regions from Piedmont to Campania are home to a dozen special chestnut-growing spots protected by DOP or IGP designation. The largest chestnut tree in the world is in Sicily, on the side of Mount Etna, and is known as Castagno dei Cento Cavalli, or the Hundred Horse Chestnut. It’s believed to be 2,000–4,000 years old, and its trunk measured 190 feet around in 1780. Its romantic name comes from a legend that it once sheltered the queen of Aragon and her company of one hundred knights and lovers during a stormy night on the mountain.
Across the country, roasted chestnuts are a common street food in the harvest season of late fall and early winter, the sweet, smoky nuts generally sold by vendors (caldarroste) who roast them in perforated pans over portable wood-fired ovens. They’ve been enjoyed this way since at least the 15th century. The vendors leave the work of shelling the nuts to their customers, scoring the hard outer shell with an X and letting the steam from the cooking expand the opening so they can be peeled. The chestnuts are often served in a brown paper cone, which doubles as a cozy hand warmer as you eat.
In northern Italy, you can still find dishes made with chestnut flour, a once-common affordable alternative to expensive wheat flour. Gnocchi and fettucine made with chestnut flour are enjoyed with game such as pheasant, and a sweet flatbread called castagnaccio is beloved in Tuscany and Liguria. Chestnuts are also a common Italian ingredient in stuffing for poultry (Giada often includes them in her Thanksgiving lineup).
One of their most delightful qualities is that they can veer savory or sweet, making chestnuts an incredibly versatile ingredient. The classic dessert Mont Blanc, or Monte Bianco, is named for the mountain range that straddles the borders of Italy and France. A mousse made with sweet chestnut puree, cocoa powder, and rum is topped with an extravagant snowdrift of whipped cream to mimic the mountain peaks. It’s no wonder both countries claim to have invented it!
The peak of the sweet chestnut art is marrons glacé, a candymaking technique practiced in Italy and France. The most plump, delicate chestnuts are peeled by hand to remove all of the bitter skin, then slowly cooked in a sugar syrup over several days to saturate the starchy interior with luscious sweetness. Finally, they’re coated in a thin sugar glaze for a crackling coating that’s irresistibly fun to eat.
Though chestnuts are a seasonal delicacy in Italy, they can be enjoyed year-round thanks to high-quality packaged nuts, purées and wrapped marrons glacé. Check out the selection in the Giadzy shop, all imported direct from Italy.