Chestnuts, a source of life

Growing chestnuts has left a lasting mark on Italian culture since the Early Middle Ages, when the Apennines acquired a circular system of nourishment, known as the “Chestnut Economy”. 

Referred to as “poor man’s bread”, chestnuts have provided nutrition and been versatile in the kitchen long before they became a gastronomic specialty. Despite the tricky architecture surrounded by all those thorns, the chestnut fruit is rich and generous. What’s edible is the seed, the yellow part inside the skin. Like in the nut, the real fruit is the achene, with various membranes that make its shape so enticing.

After picking, chestnuts can be eaten fresh after being boiled or roasted, but it’s the drying process that sets in motion the long lifecycle of the chestnut. In the “metato”, a traditional building in the central northern Apennines, chestnut wood burns slowly on the lower floor, keeping the people and animals warm, while upstairs the fruits dry slowly, being preserved dry or as flour. During times of war or famine, chestnuts and its flour by-products were the only, if not the main, foodstuff for mountain people.

The “metato”, the small, stone house in the mountains, with an attic or mezzanine loft, became the driving force of this economy: rustic and austere, but also a proud source of survival.

Autumn arrives and we’re all happy to use chestnuts any which way, in starters and desserts, in simple farmers’ recipes and haute patisserie, yet always savoring its all-embracing goodness. We put chestnuts to use to make delicious castagnaccio or to make doughs for pies, filled pasta and tagliatelle, top-notch soups and sides, and classic and contemporary pastry creations galore, referring to the empire of the reliably gorgeous marrons glacés.

But nothing compares to the endless pleasure of a paper bag of roasted chestnuts: the warmth, aroma and steam are quintessential. It’s something we can reproduce at home, old-style, with a perforated pan.