Chestnuts grow on a deciduous tree native to the Americas and Asia. Native Americans consumed this nut long before Europeans came to the New World. Europeans had been introduced to the chestnut by traders from Sardis in Eastern Turkey where people of that time referred to chestnuts as the Sardian nut. Sardis was an major city in the ancient Persian Empire before being conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 B.C. and later became a key metropolis in the Roman Empire.

Because the trees were adaptable to mountainous Mediterranean regions where cereal grains would not grow, Alexander and the Romans planted chestnuts throughout Europe. This made them an indispensable food source for the inhabitants of these areas. Chestnuts became a principal food source as well as a very valuable commodity for bartering. In addition to growing chestnut trees for the wood, the ancient Greeks ground them into flour to make bread. The Romans ground and used them to make a type of polenta. The Romans also used chestnuts to counteract various poisons and to treat dysentery and rabies.

In the early 1900's American Chestnut trees were decimated by a killing blight. Approximately four billion chestnut trees succumbed and their recovery has been slow. The United States produces only one percent of the world's chestnuts with China being the leader in production. Most American chestnuts are imported from Italy.

Fresh chestnuts are available September through February making them easily accessible in time for the holidays. Who hasn't heard the popular holiday song that begins with Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire? Chestnuts are somewhat perishable so pay attention to their condition when selecting these nuts. Unless it’s a very fresh batch, you’ll almost always get a few bad ones. Examine and lightly squeeze the chestnuts. They should have a shiny brown exterior devoid of blemishes and should feel firm with a slight give. Keep refrigerated until time to roast. Chestnuts are also available canned, frozen and dried. In France, marrons glacés, chestnuts canned in sweet syrup, are especially popular at Christmas and New Year’s.

Roasting chestnuts on an open fire is traditional, but an oven or stovetop might be the most practical option for most of us. Before roasting, cut a slit in the shell of each chestnut. Bake them at 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes. Do not omit the slit because doing so may cause them to explode in the oven. Once cool, peel off the hard shell and outer skin of the nut. The taste of chestnut meat is often described as earthy and sweet or resembling the flavor of a sweet potato. Like other nuts, chestnuts are a healthy food. They contain potassium, B and C vitamins, and are very low in fat.

Chestnuts differ from other culinary nuts in that their calories come primarily from carbohydrates rather than protein and fat. Fresh chestnuts have around 180 calories per 3.5 ounces of nut meat. Carbohydrate content compares with that of and rice. Chestnuts have twice as much starch as a potato. In some areas, sweet chestnut trees are called "the bread tree" since the nuts are often ground and made into flour. When chestnuts begin to ripen, the fruit is primarily starch and is very firm due to the high water content. As chestnuts ripen, the starch is slowly converted into sugars while moisture content begins to decrease. When you squeeze a chestnut, a slight give should be felt indicating they're fresh. These are the only nuts containing vitamin C. The content decreases by about 40% after heating. Fresh chestnuts contain approximately 52% water which evaporates fairly quickly during storage. They may lose as much as 1% of weight the first day due to water loss. Bitter tannin is contained in the bark, wood, leaves, and seed husks of chestnut trees. This tannin is utilized in the production of leather.

Prior to the chestnut blight in the early 1900's, places like the Appalachian Mountains accounted for a fourth of all chestnut trees. Today demand for chestnuts exceeds the supply. In 2007 the United States imported 4,056 metric tons of European in-shell chestnuts worth $10 million dollars. Still in its infancy, the U.S. chestnut industry produces less than 1% of total world production. Since the mid-20th century, most U.S. imports come from Southern Italy. The large, meaty, richly flavored Sicilian chestnuts are considered among the best quality for bulk and supermarket sale. A 2005 study reported that U.S. producers are mainly comprised of part-timers seeking to diversify existing agricultural businesses as well as hobbyists. Another recent study indicates that investment in a new chestnut plantation takes about 13 years to break even. This factors significantly into the small size of present production operations with half of them being only 3 to 10 acres. Most orchards have been planted within the last 10 years, and young trees are just now starting to enter commercial production. The majority of producers earn less than $5,000 per year and a third have not sold any nuts to date.

Roasted chestnuts are both nutritious and delicious. Why not add the tradition to your holiday celebrations?

(Credits: FoodReference.com; PlantFiles; photos: top, [email protected]; middle, [email protected]; bottom, [email protected])