By Christmasstar

It is rarely tried, easy to cook, hard to peel but very tasty. It is the humble Castanea, better known as the chestnut.

I tried one years ago from one of those sidewalk carts when living in the Vancouver area but could not remember what they tasted like. I checked out a local store to see if they even sold them, because I really wanted to try them again.

I had never thought about eating them other that when singing The Christmas Song (“…chestnuts roasting on an open fire…”) at Christmas.

Oh, the store had them, I cooked them and they were great! They taste kind of like a starchy sweet potato.

I also began a diligent on line search for chestnuts, what exactly are they and how to cook these little brown lumps.

I found that there are 11,300,000 search results for chestnuts that came up in my search — so obviously someone somewhere eats them!

There are several varieties of Chestnut trees around the world that grow mainly in the northern hemisphere. Here in North America we have only one type that is native, it is the sweet chestnut.

The sweet chestnut tree was almost wiped off the map when in 1904 some trees imported to New York carried the blight here.

By 1950 nearly every native Chestnut tree was dead. A few isolated groves survived and these are now being used to rebuild the species.

America now contains five species, including the dwarf chestnut. These have been cross bred to make them stronger and resistant to the blight.

Chestnuts have been cultivated for over 3,000 years.

They are still important as a staple food crop, containing twice as much starch as potatoes.

There is a legend that talks about how the Greek army survived on chestnuts when retreating form Asia Minor in 400BC.

Ancient Greeks wrote of chestnuts medicinal properties—and of the flatulence induced by eating too much of it, so go easy on them!

There were times when chestnuts were the main source of food for many people. In Italy, they are soaked in wine before roasting and serving, and are also traditionally eaten on St Simons Day as a symbol of sustenance.

St Martin’s day in Portugal is held on the 11th of November and celebrates the end of the growing season and the beginning of harvesting. It was a time to celebrate while eating large amounts of nuts and fruit before the start of the Advent fast — kind of like our Thanksgiving.

This popular food is not eaten so much in the last century because they were seen as poor people food.

But now they are gaining popularity again, so don’t wait until the stores are sold out before you get yours.

China is the biggest grower of chestnuts today followed closely by Japan.

The Chinese and Japanese use them in many dishes. Most are eaten fresh or roasted in October, November and December when they are first harvested. They are also cold stored and eaten throughout the winter. (Like we store our apples).

Of course it pays to know the difference between an edible chestnut and a horse chestnut (or buckeye) since once they are out of pods they look quite similar.

An edible chestnut will look like a green porcupine with long thin spikes all tangled up so you cannot actually see the pod.

A buckeye however is a fairly smooth ball with a few short points on it. Most importantly please remember that buckeyes are toxic. No one has ever died from eating them, but they can make you quite sick.

When buying fresh chestnuts pick over the nuts, you want only the best, smooth and shiny. Shake them, if they sound like Santa’s jingle bells do not buy them, they should make no noise at all, and like Santa’s sack, they should be heavy for their size.

Store them in the crisper of the fridge after putting them in a plastic bag, complete with air holes so they can breathe. They can be there for up to one month, but once you try them they will be all gone soon anyway so you will not have to worry about them going bad.

These days chestnuts can be purchased fresh, frozen and canned. They can be found dried and ground up like flour for those who are glucose intolerant. They also come in vacuum packs for those who do not want all the work of boiling and removing the shells, which is a lot of work, but so worth the effort.

Chestnuts go great with main dishes and with sweet dishes. In Europe they are used instead of potatoes or pasta. They can be mashed or whole.

Roasted they are great with sweet potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, brussells sprouts or cabbage. Here in North America they are used mostly in stuffing and desserts.

A recipe for you to try:

Found this tasty recipe which is so easy to make if you use chestnuts already peeled and cooked. You can buy these at specialty food stores. I made this without the brandy as I do not drink and it tasted just fine.

Delicious chocolate truffles are enriched with chestnuts and brandy. You may use fresh or canned chestnuts. For even more flavor, add some fine-chopped toasted almonds or fresh-grated nutmeg.

You will need:

• 6 ounces bittersweet or semi-sweet chocolate
• 1 16-ounce can whole chestnuts, or 1-1/4 pound fresh
• 6 Tablespoons butter
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 2-1/2 Tablespoons brandy or other liqueur
• 1 teaspoon vanilla

For the coating:
• 14 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
• 1 to 1-1/2 cups pure cocoa powder

To prepare centers, melt chocolate in a double boiler and allow to cool.

Rice the chestnuts.

Cream the butter and sugar together until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add chestnuts and flavorings to the butter/sugar mixture and blend well, then stir in the cooled chocolate. Mix well.

Roll into balls 1-1/2 inches in diameter; if mixture becomes too soft to shape, chill for several minutes.

To coat, melt the chocolate on a plate over boiling water; let cool. Carefully roll the truffles in melted chocolate, then place on a plate of cocoa powder and allow to dry for several minutes. Dust each truffle with cocoa and place in paper candy cup. Store in refrigerator.

Yield: 5 dozen truffles, but this also depends on how big you make them!

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