Chestnut (Castanea spp., Fagaceae) is said to have originally come from Lydia, an ancient kingdom in Asia Minor. Chestnuts are richly flavored, starchy and are popular cool season edible nuts of northern hemisphere. The Chestnuts are native to hilly forest of China, Japan, Europe, and North America. Botanically they belong to the beech or fagaceae family of the genus: Castenea.
Chestnuts are often used as a substitute to potato. Although they are wonderful straight from the oven or fireplace, you can make use of the winter chestnut crop in many ways, both sweet and savory. Castanea are very large deciduous trees. Castaneas have a remarkable history to narrate.
The once mighty American chestnut trees were mostly wiped out by chestnut blight (Cryphonectria parasitica) early in the 20th century. A renewed interest has been growing to revive the native chestnut trees in the whole of USA. The use of chestnuts dates back to prehistoric times probably one of the first foods eaten by man.
The Chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) was first introduced to Europe via Greece. In 1904, diseased Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York carried a fungus hitchiker that nearly devasted the American chestnut population, leaving only a few groves in California and the Pacific Northwest to escape the blight.
Today, most of the chestnut food crop is imported from Japan, China, Spain, and Italy. Chestnuts are also known as marrons in France and some parts of Europe. These starchy nuts were given to the poor as a symbol of sustenance on the Feast of Saint Martin and are also traditionally eaten on Saint Simon's Day in Tuscany.
History states that the Greek survived on their stores of chestnuts during their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-399 B.C. It is said that these nuts contain twice the amount of starch as potatoes and still an important food crop in China, Japan, and southern Europe where they are often ground into a meal for bread making, thus giving rise to the nickname of "bread tree."
Apart from potatoes, chestnuts are savored since centuries by Native Americans as their staple food. These nuts are very sweet and flavorful. Bread made of Chestnut flour can stay fresh for as long as two weeks. The nut flour is a good solution for long storage of a nutritious food. The nuts can also be eaten candied, boiled, steamed, grilled, or roasted in sweet or savory recipes.
They can be used to stuff vegetables, poultry, fowl and other edibles and are available fresh, dried, ground or canned (whole or in puree). Chestnuts are enclosed in a prickly case, most of which hold three separate small, smooth nuts. Each chestnut contains a wrinkled cream-colored kernel that is covered by a thin brown skin. The nut is protected by a hard, inedible reddish brown membrane known as the pericarp.
Improved cultivated varieties of the chestnut tree produce a single large nut, which is fleshier and more flavorful. Chestnut flour is used to prepare breads, cakes, pancakes, pastas (it is the original ingredient for polenta, known in Corsica as pulenda), or also used as thickener for stews, soups, and sauces. In Corsica, the flour is fried into doughnut-like fritters called fritelli.
The fruit can be peeled and eaten raw, but it can be somewhat astringent, especially if the pellicle is not removed. Roasting is another method of eating the fruit without peeling the skin. Once cooked, its texture is similar to that of a baked potato, with a delicate, sweet, and nutty flavor.
This method of preparation is popular in northern China as well as in Spain, Turkey, Greece, France, Korea and Southeast Asia, where the scored chestnuts may be cooked in a tub of heated coal pebbles mixed with a little sugar. Candied chestnuts (whole chestnuts candied in sugar syrup, then iced) are sold under the French name marrons glacés or Turkish name kestane şekeri ("sugared chestnuts").
Chestnuts are picked in autumn, and candied from the start of the following summer for the ensuing Christmas. Thus the marrons glacés eaten at Christmas are those picked the year before. Sweet chestnuts are not easy to peel when cold. One kilogram of untainted chestnuts yields about 700 g of shelled chestnuts.
Chestnut flavors vary slightly from one to the next, but it is somewhat sweet and certainly unique. The chestnut tree is related to the oak and can live for up to 500 years. It is one of the least oily nuts of all and the easiest to digest. These nuts contain only 15 % of sugar and large portion of starch.
The nuts can be eaten raw and are used as the main ingredient in poultry stuffing especially in thanksgiving turkey. They are also used in making chestnut butter cream. Chestnut has a high water content (about 50%) just like vegetables, therefore is should be stored in a cool dry place just like vegetables. Chestnuts are different from other nuts as they are low in fat and high in starch content.
They have a crumbly texture and a sweet, mild flavor. Chestnut is most abundant during winter season but canned and bottled peeled chestnuts are available year-round. Eating chestnuts you can gain a lot of health benefits like, unlike other nuts Chestnuts are relatively low in calories and contain less fat but are rich in minerals, vitamins and phyto-nutrients that benefit health.
Nutritionally they are similar to other starchy foods such as sweet potato, sweet corn, potatoes etc, consisting of mainly starch. However, they also contain high quality proteins. They are good source of dietary fiber and exceptionally rich in vitamin C. Being a strong anti-oxidant, it offers protection from harmful free radicals.
The nuts are excellent source of minerals such as iron, calcium, potassium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus and zinc. Provide very good amount of potassium (518 mcg / 100 g). Potassium helps counter hypertensive action of sodium, lowers heart rate and blood pressure. Iron helps prevent microcytic-anemia. Magnesium and phosphorus are important components of bone metabolism.
They are also rich in many important B-complex groups of vitamins. Chestnuts, like hazelnuts and almonds, are free in gluten and therefore popular ingredient in the preparation of gluten free food formulas for gluten-sensitive, wheat allergy and celiac disease persons.
The nutritional values per 100 gm of Chestnuts (raw, peeled) are:
Energy: 820 kJ (200 kcal)
Carbohydrates: 44 g
Sugars: 11 g
Fat: 1.3 g
Protein: 1.6 g
Vitamin C: 40 mg
Iron: 0.94 mg
Potassium: 484 mg