In winter, roast-chestnut street stalls are a common sight in Greek cities. The seller has a little portable brazier, a whole heap of roasted chestnuts ready to sell in paper cornets, and a whole heap more roasting.
Every Greek kid has pestered their parents for one of those paper cornets. Chestnuts and the Greek winter are almost synonymous.
As one Australian food critic pointed out, it is amazing that people had learned how to eat them, they had so many layers of protection: the green spikes, the glossy, hard second layer, the flaky skin underneath that had to be rubbed off before you could at last properly use the fleshy nut in the centre.
Yet, chestnuts are so popular, because they are so versatile.
You can try chestnuts on their own, roasted, boiled or baked in the oven; use them also in your recipes and add a unique flavour and colour to your culinary pursuits, as both your sweet and salted creations will gain greatly by this ingredient’s mellow, rich taste.
Although they are the perfect accompaniment to pork and poultry, the Greek traditional confectionery is where they are mostly used in. Enjoy them as a spoon sweet, in jams and spreads and you will certainly love it in cakes such as tsoureki, vasilopita and sweet breads.
Chestnuts grow everywhere in Greece in Macedonian forests in the north and all the way down to the Cretan mountains in the south; the new harvest, usually in October, is cause for celebration in many parts of the country.
Production has increased in recent years and more Greeks in the mountainous regions turn to the cultivation of chestnuts as international demand, especially from Italy, has peaked up.
The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa) was originally a native to Asia Minor and was introduced into Europe from Sardis in Asia Minor. The nut was then called the ‘Sardian Nut’.
It has been a staple food in Southern Europe, Turkey and southwestern and eastern Asia for millennia. It largely replaced cereals where these would not grow well if at all, in mountainous Mediterranean areas.
Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe while on their various campaigns. The Greek army is said to have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-399 B.C. thanks to their stores of chestnuts.
Ancient Greeks like the physician, pharmacologist and botanist Dioscorides and Romans such as Galen, the prominent physician and philosopher of Greek origin, wrote of chestnuts to comment on their medicinal properties.
To the early Christians chestnuts symbolized chastity.
Until the introduction of the potato, whole forest-dwelling communities which had scarce access to wheat flour relied on chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates.
In some parts of Italy a cake made of chestnuts is used as a substitute for potatoes.