Chestnuts 101

The Italian Garden Project | Chestnuts 1

If there was anything revered as much as figs in the Italian American household where I grew up, it was chestnuts. Apparently the two are near and dear to the hearts of folks of other nationalities as well.

 

Harvey with chestnut pick up tool

In my recent quest to find the perfect chestnut after being disappointed for the last several years with those available locally, I visited the chestnut and fig orchards of Harvey Correia of Isleton, California, a third generation farmer of Portuguese descent. For a chestnut and fig geek like me, spending a sunny California afternoon touring Harvey’s orchards and soaking in his expert growing advice was heavenly. He grows the most beautiful chestnuts I’ve ever seen and has over 230 varieties of fig trees!

 

chestnut tree

As we walked through the meticulously maintained chestnut orchard, Harvey explained that in 2003 he began grafting Italian Marroni to his existing trees after discovering the variety during a trip to Italy.  His customers liked them so much he decided to convert all of his trees to Marroni.

 

chestnut in shell

Chestnuts grow in burs that are excruciatingly prickly. Most of the nuts fall out and onto the ground. Unfortunately, the empty spiny burs also fall to the ground eventually and I quickly discovered that sandals are not the best footwear choice when visiting a chestnut orchard.

 

The nuts are picked up with this clever nut gathering device.

 

chestnut slitting knife

Correia Chestnut Farm is the only online source for Italian Marroni. They can be ordered through the website, www.chestnuts.us where you can also order one of these cute little knives that are perfect for carving the X in the nut before roasting.

 

chestnuts with vent slits cut in"

The cut prevents steam from building up causing the chestnut to explode.

roasted chestnuts

Chestnuts can be roasted on a cookie sheet in the oven for 20 – 30 minutes at 400 degrees. The shells pull open as seen above. They can also be toasted over a gas or wood fire in a chestnut roasting pan. This blackens the shell and makes them easier to peel. Be sure to shake the pan often to cook the nuts evenly.

With either method, peel them while they are still warm. Harvey suggests wrapping the hot chestnuts in a warm, damp towel immediately after roasting to retain the heat and moisture, then squeeze them to loosen the outer shell and pellicle (inner skin).

roasted chestnut peeled open

Shelling warm chestnuts can be fun and almost addictive when they peel easily. It’s extremely frustrating though when the inner skin clings tightly to the nut making it impossible to remove and leaves them inedible. I’ve found this to be the case with most chestnuts that I’ve purchased in stores over the past several years. According to Harvey, it’s important to refrigerate chestnuts until 3 to 6 days before you intend to prepare them. During that time they should be kept at room temperature to “cure”. Unlike other nuts, they have a high moisture content and are low in fat. The majority of grocery stores do not properly refrigerate chestnuts or do not refrigerate them at all and as a result they are often spoiled or dried out.

 

fig orchard

From the chestnut orchard, we headed over for a quick tour of the fig orchard.

 

yellow fig

Here rare varieties are grown for hobbyists who collect them. Serious fig collectors are willing to pay very high prices for coveted cuttings. Hmm, as much as my immigrant grandfather loved figs, I just can’t see him doing that.

Grazie mille, Harvey, for a wonderful visit!

Comments

Michael Bianco

My father was from a mountain village in southern Italy Sarsale Provenche De Catansaro . His story was that the revered tree which stood in the town was a 500 year old chestnut that the whole town adopted and cared for. For many years he cultivated his fig tree and harvested fruit every year. He passed away at 102 and I am sure he maintains his garden in heaven with the same pride. God bless the Italian gardener. They can grow anything.

Reply
Pat Belculfine

Mary,
I roast my chestnuts about 35 – 40 minutes at 425 deg., otherwise the skin doesn’t peel off as easy from the chestnut and this also gives the chestnut a light brown, toasted flavor.
I was able to beat the squirrels this year and was able to gather about 100 chestnuts.
Pasquale

Reply
Mary Menniti

Thanks, Pasquale. I’ll try roasting them for slightly longer at a higher temperature to see if I have better luck peeling the inner skin off of store-bought chestnuts. Lucky you, I didn’t beat the squirrels to quite so many of the ones from the tree that I still have that my grandfather planted years ago. It grows beautiful chestnuts but the squirrels love them too and are much quicker than me at gathering them.

Reply
Fran Tunno Mills

Hey Mary,

When my mom made them, she roasted some. She peeled off the outer peel of others and boiled them in a pot with a bay leaf. The skins come off easily when you boil them and they have a great flavor and are very tender, so you could use them in stuffing or just eat them. Thanks! I live in California, so I think I need a field trip to meet this man and his farm!
Best,
Fran

Reply
Nancy

Hi Mary,

Recently a bought one and a half dozen chestnuts from Whole Foods. After roasting, I peeled them to find hardened nuts and/or mold. They looked fine from the outside. This has happened before to a few but this time it was the entire batch. Do you know why and how I can avoid this in the future?

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Mary Menniti

Nancy, I’ve had the same experience with chestnuts that I’ve bought from several different retail stores. What I learned from Harvey is that most stores are not refrigerating the nuts when displayed for sale. The nuts may not have even been refrigerated by the grower immediately after picking and during shipping. It’s important that the nuts are kept refrigerated until a few days before roasting and they need to be eaten fairly soon after picking.

Reply
Raymond Salvatore

I had a Chinese Italian cross chestnut and would get lots of good quality nuts I would boil them and preserve them in mason jars filled with homemade red wine always great for Christmas. I’ve always had fig tree’s and grow them in whiskey barrels so I put them in the garage for the winter and when I see the leaves starting in may I put them outside …….MADONE ALL THE FIGS I love the fact that the old time Italians are still around im second generation but I learned and live alot of the old way because thats all I was around when I grew up in providence rhode island every yard had a garden and fruit trees every october you would see all the wine grape boxes in everybodys trash. I grew up making supresatta and capicolo and drying it in the basement and we always put everything up in the jar my favorite was the pickled peppers la bella vita thank you for the amazing project!

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