Chestnuts - Castagne
Known to Italians as castagne, the small variety, or marroni, the larger, more common variety, castenea or European chestnuts
, are a delicious reminder of all that is wonderful about autumn. Whether you buy them roasted and fragrant from a street vendor, or eat them cooked down with cream in a rich pudding, this hearty nut is indulgent and comforting. Chestnuts have been a mainstay in Italian culinary history since ancient times. Homer, Pliny, and Virgil all make mention of the hardy chestnut trees that have been cultivated in and around Rome since at least 37 B.C.. Known since the early days for their nourishing qualities and sweet, woodsy flavor, chestnuts were often boiled and then eaten by laborers as a restorative lunch after a hard morning in the fields.
Italians and other Europeans also grind chestnuts into flour. Before corn was brought to Italy, the porridge we know today as polenta originally called for chestnut, rather than corn flour. After the advent of white flour, chestnut flour was historically used as a more economical substitute. With supplies scarce during the two World Wars, Italians relied exclusively upon chestnut flour to make their breads. Chestnut flour is thus romanticized as the poor man’s flour, a connotation that undermines its uniquely nutty, almost bitter flavor. Italians are also fond of using chestnut honey, a robust honey variety with a slightly woodsy overtone. Less sugary sweet than other honeys, chestnut honey adds a sophisticated complexity to desserts. It is particularly delicious when served with cheese, either a strong pungent cheese such as Gorgonzola or a gentler type such as soft ricotta.
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