Le Bruciate: Selecting and Roasting Chestnuts

Chestnuts: These are Marroni

One might not think it, but chestnuts were one of the most important Italian crops until well into the 20th century, because the trees grow well on steep mountain slopes where nothing else can be grown, and yield an abundant fall crop that – before the modern age of abundance – provided sustenance through the long winter months: In many areas much of the economy revolved around the crop, which people gathered in the fall and worked long into the winter to sort, process, package and sell. Then, come spring, it was time to tend the chestnut stands again. It was backbreaking work, and it comes as no surprise that when economic conditions improved in the 50s and 60s the majority of Italy’s chestnut farmers sought out other jobs.

For those who remained this has worked out well – chestnuts are tasty and nutritious (indeed, the aristocracy never disdained them they way they did some other staples of the poor), and now that it’s a seller’s market prices have soared. Though a chestnut connoisseur will be able to point out a half-dozen or more kinds of chestnut, you will find two in Italian markets: castagne, which are generally small (an inch or so high and often fairly flat sided) and marroni, which are voluptuously rounded, firm, and larger – up to an inch and a half high, and with a wondrously distended front.

In selecting chestnuts (and this is especially true if you live where chestnuts are imported), trust your eyes. Their skins should have a healthy glow and a beautiful brown shine. If they look dim or mottled they may be moldy. They should also be firm and feel solid, with no air between the skin and the underlying flesh – wizened nuts are likely old. Finally, the skins should be blemish free. In particular, look for pinholes, which likely mean worms.

Chestnuts in a roasting pan - Note the holes in the pan

Chestnuts in a roasting pan – Note the holes in the pan

Italians generally buy chestnuts to make bruciate – roasted chestnuts. In the past, when people kept the hearth going during the winter months, some used terracotta colanders they’d fill with chestnuts and settle into the coals, while others used iron pans with holes punched into them, mounted on long handles (a popcorn popper lined with tinfoil that has holes punched through it would be a good substitute), which they would set on a trivet over the coals.

The terracotta colander can only be used in a fireplace. However, the roasting pan can also be used over a gas flame.

If you cannot find a chestnut roasting pan (they’re sold by a number of mail order outfits) I suggest you purchase a cheap, thin steel skillet (non-stick surfaces are not necessary here) and punch about a dozen holes into the bottom with a thick nail.

Got a roasting pan and chestnuts?

The first thing to do is line the well of the burner you plan to use with aluminum foil, because roasting chestnuts do give off soot, and the lining (which can be reused) will make cleanup much easier.

Chestnuts Roasting: Note foil lining burner well

Chestnuts Roasting: Note foil lining burner well

Next, make a cut into the round side of each chestnut to keep it from exploding as it heats (I use a small knife with a serrated blade). Line the bottom of the roaster with chestnuts (if you have more you’ll have to roast in batches), sprinkle them lightly with water, and cook them over a medium flame for 10-20 minutes (depending upon their size), shaking them frequently to keep them from burning.

When they’re done the skins will have pulled back from the nuts, and the nutmeats will be firm but fork-tender – charred spots indicate insufficient shaking. Sprinkle them with a few drops of red wine (if you want), wrap them in an old cloth, squeeze them until they crackle, and let them sit in a warm place for five minutes.

Peel back the cloth and enjoy! Few things are more pleasant that sitting around a fire with friends while eating roasted chestnuts and sipping a light red wine such as Vino Novello or Beaujolais Nouveau (its French equivalent).

A Street Vendor in Rome

A Street Vendor in Rome

Don’t have a roasting pan and don’t want to sacrifice a regular pan, or don’t have a gas stove? You can also roast chestnuts in the oven: set your oven to 425 F (210 C), and while it’s heating make cuts in the round sides of the nuts. Arrange the chestnuts either on an oven rack or on a cookie sheet and roast them until the skins have pulled back from the cuts and the nutmeats have softened (exactly how long will depend upon the chestnuts, but at least 15-20 minutes. Wrap them as above and let them sit in a warm place briefly, and then enjoy them.

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Categories: Italian Desserts and Sweets - Dolci, Italian Ingredients

Author:Cosa Bolle in Pentola

Italy boasts an astonishing number of varietals, denominations, and wines, and tremendous changes are sweeping the land. New wines are being created, new DOCs are being introduced, and the existing denominations are overhauling their regulations both to reflect the practices adopted by their member wineries and to favor improvements in quality. Even the most staid and stolid region can flower seemingly overnight, emerging with exciting new wines and wineries that require rewriting the enological maps and rethinking one's positions. And, of course, recipes too, because cuisine and wine are closely intertwined and it's difficult to imagine one without the other.

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