Chestnuts (Castanea sativa) should not be confused with water chestnuts (sangaray) or horse chestnuts otherwise known in Britain as conkers, which are not edible, hence the name. They are native, to China, Japan Europe and North America, and there are four main varieties: - Castanea dentate in the US, Castanea mollissimo in China, Castanea crenata in Japan and Castanea sativa in Europe. In Portugal, Greece and Italy they are called by a derivative of the Latin, Castanea. Right now, at the end of October and the beginning of November they can be found on the streets of Europe. All you have to do is follow your nose and buy a bag of roasted chestnuts to help you get through your Christmas shopping expeditions.
It is supposed that the sweet chestnuts (as opposed to horse chestnuts) came from Sardis in Asia Minor which is why they were sometimes called Sardian nuts. They have also been referred to as Jupiter’s nuts, and were planted by the Roman armies as they went on their campaigns. They were planted in order to feed the armies, but as they don’t bear fruit for 40 years, this was an exercise in forward planning. These trees can become giants and have been known to live for more than 500 years. The nuts typically grow in twos or threes inside their prickly burr, but marrons grow singly and are sweeter than the chestnuts that are normally bought on the street. You can but marrons glace in cans which can be used in desserts, and the unsweetened chestnut puree can be used in stuffings. Traditionally chestnuts are used to stuff the Saint Martin’s Day goose in Germany and for turkeys and pheasants.
   In Italy and Portugal as well as other Catholic countries in Europe, chestnuts are traditionally eaten on Saint Martin’s Day which is in the 11th November. Saint Martin was a soldier in the Roman army and the legend has it that at the gates of Amiens (France) he saw a beggar on that date and he tore his military cloak in half and gave half to the beggar. The sun came out and this is why in November on Saint Martin’s Day there is what we call an “Indian summer.” That night Martin dreamed that Jesus appeared wearing the half of the cloak he had given to the beggar and thanked him for his generosity.
   In Italy there is an old saying “A San Martino ogni mosto diventa vino” which means “On Saint Martin’s Day all the wine must becomes wine” so this is the day when the new wine is celebrated. It’s combined with eating chestnuts and the other delights of the Italian countryside (truffles and cheeses with preserves). In some parts of Italy chestnuts are soaked in wine before roasting. Pieter Breughel the 16th century Flemish artist painted “The Wine of Saint Martin” after being in Italy on this day and taking part in the celebrations.
  France has a “Delicious Week” which begins on the third Monday of October and chestnuts figure in this quite prominently.
   In Italy and other parts of Europe gluten-free flour was made with chestnuts and they were a delicacy in the Renaissance. Later they were spurned by the wealthy as peasant food and by the 19th century this conception of them as well as deforestation meant that they almost fell into oblivion in Italy. In the early 20th century the trees were attacked by a fungus both in Europe and North America, and it is only in recent years that there has been a resurgence in interest in growing chestnuts again in the US. They have imported them from Italy and Japan.
   They have been used in traditional medicine for centuries. Culpeper commented: - “If you dry the chestnut, both the barks being taken away, beat them into a powder and make the powder up into an electuary with honey, it is a first rate remedy for cough and spitting of blood.”
  Chestnuts are low in calories and rich in minerals and have a high starch content. They also contain phyto-nutrients and are a good source of dietary fibre. They also contain vitamins C, D, E, K, and B6 and 12. They are also providers of Omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, so are well worth adding to your diet.
  The leaves can be dried and saved for infusions as remedies for troublesome coughs including whooping cough. You will need 1 ounce of the dried leaves to 1 pint of boiling water. Pour the water over the leaves and allow them to steep for 20 minutes, then strain and use the infusion (or tisane) three or four times a day, hot, in small cupfuls. This infusion will also help reduce the body’s temperature if you have a fever.
  An infusion of the bark (1 ounce to 1 pint of water, boiled together) will reduce a temperature and if you boil the leaves, bark and chestnuts together, over a low heat for 30 minutes, you can use the water to soothe pains of rheumatism and chilblains. You can also just use a few handfuls of chestnuts to do the same thing. 5 handfuls of chestnuts to 1 ½ litres of water, boil until the water has reduced by half and wash the painful places with the strained water. (Then eat the chestnuts or puree them.)
  The sweet chestnut contains selenium and potassium which seem to help lift the spirits and are used as a tonic for the muscles, nerves, veins and reduce capillary permeability by repairing microscopic holes and leaks in the blood vessels and capillaries, helping the vein walls regain elasticity and preventing damage and swelling. They are used in the treatment of varicose veins and piles in traditional medicine. If you eat one bowl of sweetened chestnut puree with honey every day before breakfast and dinner for several weeks, this will help with these problems.
   A chestnut and honey face mask left on for 30 minutes then rinsed off with warm water will help improve dry skin and this delays the ageing process that causes wrinkles. Make it by boiling ½ lb of chestnuts, then grinding them and adding honey to make a paste.
  If you boil the bark, nuts and leaves together and then strain the liquid, you can use it to soothe an itching scalp, and bring out golden highlights in your hair.
   The recipe below comes from Portugal, but you can use the Italian one too, soak chestnuts in red wine after shelling them. Leave them to soak overnight and then roast them in the oven for 45 mins at 350 degrees. If you want to feel nostalgic, then listen to the Mel Torme Christmas song  which contains the words “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire” which probably brought tears to many eyes as people remembered the good old days when you could actually do this at Christmas time.
  The phrase “ an old chestnut” probably originates in the fact that chestnut trees can live for so long. It means a well-known story or joke of the sort that elderly relatives tell at family gatherings where everyone knows the story by heart.

30-40 chestnuts in their shells, washed and the shells slit
sea salt

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and place the chestnuts on a baking tray.
Make sure you cut a small slit in each shell or they will explode and make a mess in the oven.
Rub the slits with sea salt and bake for 45 mins.
Serve hot with a little butter if you wish, and perhaps a sprinkling of paprika. Serve with new wine.
These have Taste and are a Treat.


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