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Chestnuts from A to Z: 26 Things about Chestnuts

Chestnuts from A to Z: 26 Things about Chestnuts

Everything you need to know about chestnuts in alphabetical order: from their history to their properties, chestnuts have a lot to say for them

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American Chestnut
American chestnuts have larger and more widely spaced saw-teeth on the edge of the leaves. The scientific name is Castanea Dentata, where castanea means chestnut and dentata means toothed. Once an important hardwood timber tree, the American chestnut is highly susceptible to chestnut blight, accidentally introduced into North America on imported Asiatic chestnut trees. The disease spread 80 km a year and in a few decades killed up to three billion trees. Now American chestnut grows in some protected areas but the largest part of chestnuts in the US are represented by the Chinese species that is immune to the blight.

Chestnuts have a great starch profile, they can be used to make a wonderful brew. If you chemically compare them to malted barley, you will find surprising similarities. 
Chestnut beer has been produced in France (it is a Corse specialty), in Central Europe and in Brazil. In the last years some American brewery started to produce this tasty beer.

Chestnuts are used in the pastry and in cakes. The two most famous are Castagnaccio and Mont Blanc. Castagnaccio is a plain chestnut flour cake, typical of Tuscany, Liguria, Piedmont, Emilia-Romagna, in Italy. It's made by a dough of chestnut, water, olive oil, pine nuts, and raisins, and cooked in a oven. Castagnaccio is best served with ricotta, chestnut honey or sweet wines such as vin santo. Mont Blanc is a dessert of puréed, sweetened chestnuts topped with whipped cream. The name comes from Mont Blanc, as it resembles a snow-capped mountain. It is popular in France, Italy, China, Japan, Hungary and in Romania. The dessert was described in an Italian cook book from 1475, and was often served in the home of Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia.

Once dried, chestnut loses most of its water as its caloric value increases. According to the usual conversion table, 100 grams of fresh chestnut provides 199 calories; dried, they provide almost twice (371 calories) that amount.

European Chestnut
European chestnut (or Castanea sativa where the Latin sativa means "cultivated by humans"), is a tree that has been cultivated for its edible nuts since ancient times all across Europe, from Brittany to Greece. Some cultivars ('Marron de Lyon', 'Paragon' and some hybrids) produce only one large nut per cupule, rather than the usual two to four nuts of edible, though smaller, size.

After the chestnuts are dried, they can be ground into flour. Because chestnut flour does not rise, many commentators refused to call the loaves bread. Chestnut flour and all the products derived from it (from bread to beer), are gluten free.

In 1584, the governor of Genoa, who dominated Corsica, ordered to all farmers and landowners to plant four trees every year, among which a chestnut tree – plus olive, fig and mulberry trees. Chestnut found an ideal soil in the island and this helped to develop an economy based on chestnuts.

Hundred horses
The largest and oldest known chestnut tree in the world is called Hundred Horse Chestnut and is located in Sant'Alfio, on the eastern slope of Mount Etna, in Sicily. It had a circumference of 57.9 m when measured in 1780. Above-ground the tree has since split into multiple large trunks, but below-ground, these trunks still share the same roots. It is generally believed to be 2,000 to 4,000 years old. The tree's name originated from a legend: the queen of Aragon and her company of one hundred knights were caught in a severe thunderstorm during a trip to Mount Etna. The entire company is said to have found shelter under the tree.

Ink disease
Ink disease, caused by Phytophthora cambivora and Phytophthora Cinnamomi, officially began in 1842, and spread to Portugal by 1853, reaching France by 1860. The disease killed chestnut trees in about two to three years. It was named after the ink-black color of the tannic acid becoming oxidized after seeping out. Ink disease turns the leaves yellow until they fall off; the fruits remain small and the nuts prematurely drop out of the burrs.

Japanese Chestnut
Chestnut (Kuri in Japanese) is Japan's most ancient fruit. Kuri was cultivated even before growing rice. It is widely used to cook Japanese dishes: kurigohan (boiled rice with chestnut), kurimanju (ravioli with chestnut). It is also used to cook sweets and compote.

Kalorama is the name of the yearly festival held at the Kalorama Reserve, in Melbourne (Australia), on the first Sunday of May. There are many other world festival centered around chestnuts.  

The tree tends to stop bearing fruit North of the fifty-second parallel. In Eurasia the hypothetical line is drawn from Brittany to Belgrade down to Trabezon, in Turkey. In Africa, chestnuts grow only in Maghreb. In North America, there were many chestnut trees before the first half of the twentieth century, later about three billions of trees were destroyed by a blight. Another species of chestnut exists in China, and Japan is on its way to becoming the world’s leading chestnut producer.

Marron glacés
The candied chestnut (whole chestnuts candied in sugar syrup, then iced) appeared in France in the 16th century. Clément Faugier, ingénieur des Ponts et Chaussées, was looking for a way to revitalize the regional economy. In 1882, he invented the technology to make marrons glacés on an industrial scale (although a great deal of the over-twenty necessary steps from harvest to the finished product are still accomplished manually). Chestnuts, picked in autumn, are candied from summer to the ensuing Christmas.

Chestnuts are somewhat different than most nuts because they contain very little fat and protein. In fact, chestnuts are a great source of carbohydrate (50%) and water (45%). Roman soldiers were given chestnut porridge before entering battle.

In George Orwell's 1984, the chestnut tree is used in poems recited throughout, referring to nature, modern life, or the saying: 'that old chestnut'. There's also a bar where the protagonist Winston Smith goes called the Chestnut Tree Café.

Antoine Parmentier used to extract sugar from nuts. He once sent to the Academy in Lyon a sugarloaf of chestnuts that weighed several pounds.

The opportunity to place chestnuts at the center of the French sugar industry was intensified a few years later during the Continental blockade. However, Napoleon preferred to make sugar from beets.

The French (and the Italians) have two words for chestnut. The ordinary chestnut is called châtaigne, whereas the best (and sweetest) chestnut is called a marron (which in English is known as the Spanish chestnut). The French thought the best chestnut was the so-called Lyon chestnut, which was actually an Italian one.

One of the most common ways to cook chestnuts is to roast them. Roasted chestnuts were sold on the streets of Rome in the sixteenth century and still sold on the streets of European towns in the winter. The Italian name for roasted chestnut is caldarroste, and they are sold in paper cones on the street. It's easy and quick to cook. The only advice is to cut a cross on the flat side of the chestnuts to avoid their explosion. They are usually cooked in a typical frying pan with a lot of holes to let the fire burn the chestnuts directly.

The sweet chestnut was introduced in Europe by Sardis, in Asia Minor. Sardis was an ancient city (Sartmahmut before 19 October 2005) in Turkey. Sardis was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Lydia. The fruit was called the 'Sardian nut'.

An old Corsican wedding tradition says to prepare 22 different chestnut dishes and serve them on the day of the wedding.

Under a spreading chestnut-tree/the village smithy stands”. This is the incipit of the popular poem The Village Blacksmith written by American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. The tree mentioned in the poem was cut down and part of it was made into an armchair presented to Longfellow bythe local schoolchildren. In 1922, John Ford directed a movie adapted by Longfellow's work, but only one of the eight reels survived.

Vitamin C
Of all the nuts, chestnuts are the only ones that contain Vitamin C. One ounce of boiled or steamed chestnuts delivers between 9.5 mg and 26.7 mg of the vitamin, while the dried variety has double the vitamin for a total of 15.1 mg to 61.3 mg for 3.5 ounces.

Chestnut is of the same family of the oak, and likewise its wood contains many tannins. This makes its wood very lasting, gives it excellent natural outdoor resistance and avoids the need for extra protection. Chestnut's timber is decorative. Light brown in color, it is sometimes confused with oak wood. Young chestnut wood has proved more durable than oak for woodwork. After most of its growth is achieved, chestnut's timber tends to split and warp more the older it is to begin with; neither as hard nor quite as strong as oak.

X-tra large trees
Apart from the biggest Hundred Horse Chestnut on Mount Etna, there are other two chestnut trees that deserve a mention to their dimension: the Tortworth Chestnut.  In 1776, it  was described as the largest tree in England. Southern Spain's Sacred Chestnut of Istan  has a circumference of 14 meters, it is estimated to be between 800 and 1,000 years old.

Chestnut trees seldom grow spontaneously. Usually. the presence of a chestnut tree is the result of human activity rather than an act of nature. It is important to notice that people do not plant chestnut trees for themselves. They do it for generations to come because the trees begin to bear their fruits only after 15 years and their yield is not optimal until they are 50 years old.

Zinc is one of the minerals found in chestnuts among others like potassium, iron, magnesium, sodium, phosphorus and calcium.



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