Probably one of the first foods eaten by man, the chestnut dates back to prehistoric times. "The Christmas Song" established it as an endearing holiday treat in 20th century America. Yet in Europe, Asia, and Africa, chestnuts often substitute for potatoes in everyday dishes. Chestnuts do add a festive flavor served straight from the oven or fireplace, but you can make use of this winter crop with a plethora of chestnut recipes, both savory and sweet.
The chestnut tree, Castanea sativa, was first introduced to Europe via Greece. The majority of the chestnut trees found in America now come from native European or Chinese stock, but Native Americans feasted on America's own variety, Castanea dentata, long before immigrants brought their varieties to America.
In 1904, diseased Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York, carried a fungus hitchhiker that nearly devasted the American chestnut population, which at one time numbered in the billions. Only a few groves in California and the Pacific Northwest escaped the blight. In the 21st century, most fresh chestnuts sold for consumption in the United States come from China, Korea, and Italy. Top-quality chestnuts are known as marrons in France and some parts of Europe.
In the Christian tradition, these starchy nuts are 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. On the island of Corsica, where chestnuts feature prominently in the everyday cuisine, an old tradition says to prepare 22 different dishes from chestnuts and serve them at a wedding feast.
Chestnuts contain twice as much starch as potatoes, but unlike other nuts, they are relatively low in fat. High in fiber and vitamin C, chestnuts also contain a day's worth of selenium in one nut. Legend has it that the Greek army survived on their stores of chestnuts during their retreat from Asia Minor in 401 to 399 B.C. The Japanese began cultivating chestnuts even before they began growing rice.
Chestnuts remain an important food crop in China, Japan, and southern Europe, where cooks often grind them into a meal for breadmaking, thus giving rise to the nickname of "bread tree." Chestnut flour is gluten-free, and Italian cooks especially use it to prepare many types of sweet cakes. Chestnuts can also be pureed into soups, sauteed and used to top pasta, added to casseroles, baked into desserts, and folded into ice cream. You can also roast them for eating out of hand.
Highly valued chestnut lumber resembles its cousin, the oak, in both color and texture. In colonial times, the rot-resistant wood and the edible nuts contributed to the burgeoning American economy. Also known for their tanning properties, the trees can live for 1,000 years and usually do not begin to produce fruit until they reach 40 years old.