It isn’t always easy to reconcile the language of science with everyday usage. The differences are countless. Cooks talk about cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and eggplants as though they were vegetables, yet they’re actually fruits that grow from flowers. Pink peppercorns belong to the cashew—not the pepper—family. And horse chestnuts are a very different animal from the chestnuts that appear in the markets in the fall.
Confusion over chestnuts
While squirrels may view them as gourmet treats, you wouldn’t want to chomp down on the large fruits of the horse chestnut trees that grace our yards. Horse chestnuts are considered poisonous, at least for humans, so warn your children! While rarely lethal, they can cause vomiting, loss of physical coordination and even paralysis.
In other words, appearance aside, horse chestnuts have nothing to do with chestnut purée, chestnut ice cream or the roasted chestnuts sold on the streets of large cities. In fact, the two are unrelated, the edible chestnut belonging to the genus Castena and the horse chestnut to the genus Aesculus.
The European chestnuts
A member of the beech family, the European chestnut tree has been cultivated for its fruit for thousands of years. It can live five centuries or longer, sometimes twice as long, and attain a height of 20 or even 30 metres (70 to 100 feet). The fruits often grow in clusters of two or three. Each fruit contains one or two seeds covered by a tough brown peel and a reddish skin that adheres tightly to the entire nut, including every nook and cranny. The peel and astringent skin have to be removed before the nut can be eaten.
Chestnuts are collected in the autumn, after they fall to the ground. They are traditionally served during the holidays, often with game meats. The largest are often candied or preserved in spirits.
A native of Asia Minor that entered Europe through Greece, the chestnut tree gradually came to form entire forests on European soil and play a key economic role, in particular in carpentry and food. Flour was even made from its nuts—a tradition maintained to this day in certain regions—earning it the moniker “the bread tree.”
Only a dozen or so species of chestnuts are found around the globe. However, some 100 cultivars, with nuts of different sizes and flavours, are grown. Several cultivars are related to the Chinese chestnut. China is, in fact, the world’s leading producer of chestnuts, accounting for 40% of the worldwide production of some 500,000 tonnes a year. Ranked by output, the other main producers are Korea, Italy, Portugal, France and Spain. Despite being a major producer, Japan is also the leading importer, as its growers are unable to meet domestic demand.
The tragic fate of the American chestnuts
Five species of chestnut tree are native to North America, including the famous American chestnut, which can reach 30 metres in height and once formed huge forests from southern Ontario and Maine south to Florida and from the Piedmont west to the Ohio Valley. While the nuts were harvested and sold in late fall, the wood was a mainstay of the forest industry.
In 1904, chestnut blight, a fungal disease, arrived in New York in a shipment of imported chestnuts. Having raged through Europe and Asia, the insidious fungus proved catastrophic in North America. In less than 30 years, the American chestnut was virtually wiped out, with losses estimated at four billion trees.
Today all that remains of the original forest are saplings and suckers that invariably die at a young age. However, in May of this year a 40-year-old tree measuring 12 metres in height was discovered in Georgia—a hopeful sign for those who dream of eating American chestnuts again someday.
How to prepare chestnuts
Here are three ways to peel chestnuts. Whichever way you choose, be sure to set aside plenty of time!
The first way is to remove the peel and skin using a small sharp knife. This is the best way when you need raw chestnuts.
The second way is to pierce the peel of each chestnut with a knife tip. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and roast at 180°C (350°F), for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until the peels burst. Let cool, then peel.
The third way is to make a cross-shaped incision in the peel of each nut, then boil them in water for 30 to 45 minutes. Drain and peel. If the peels are stubborn, return the nuts to boiling water for a few minutes.
A native of southeastern Europe, the horse chestnut owes its English and Latin names to the Turks, who were said to have used its seeds to make a cough remedy for horses.
Grown mainly as a shade and ornamental tree, the horse chestnut is very popular in Canada due to its hardiness (it is found as far north as Edmonton) and showy panicles of white flowers. A magnificent red-flowered variety is also grown. Horse chestnuts can reach 30 metres (100 feet) in height and live a century or longer. Prized by British children for playing conkers, the fruit has a spiny husk called a burr that usually contains two large brown seeds. At one time in Europe, the seeds were used to make a starchy meal fed to hogs, sheep, goats and other livestock.
in the kitchen
Season Fresh chestnuts are sold in the late fall and winter, the peak season being in December and January. Look for heavy nuts with hard, shiny brown shells. Avoid soft or wrinkled nuts. When fresh nuts aren’t available, choose the whole, peeled, cooked and vacuum-packed chestnuts sold year round in upscale grocery stores. Many supermarkets carry canned whole chestnuts and plain or sweetened chestnut purée.
Use Chestnuts are roasted, steamed, boiled, made into jam, puréed, used in desserts and served as an accompaniment to poultry and game dishes. The larger, tastier nuts tend to be saved for fancy dishes and are preferred for making canned purée (sometimes called paste), chestnut cream or crème (purée flavoured with vanilla and sweetened with sugar), flour and the famous marrons glacés, candied chestnuts eaten as sweets. Chestnuts are very popular in Europe, where they are a key
ingredient in many regional dishes. They are also used in stuffings, served in salads, polenta, cakes and cookies, and made into compotes, soufflés and mousses. Bronze in colour and strong in taste, chestnut honey is often drizzled on cheese and used as a flavouring for ice cream and other desserts.
Storage Store chestnuts in a cool, dry place away from rodents and insects. With their peels intact, fresh chestnuts will keep one week at room temperature and one month in the refrigerator in a perforated plastic bag. Peeled and cooked chestnuts will keep several days in the refrigerator. The raw or cooked nuts can also be frozen, in which case they will last around six months. Dried chestnuts will keep two months in a dry place at room temperature, six months in the freezer.