Chestnuts are found throughout Italy, and have been a staple of their cuisine for thousands of years. Mentioned in writings from Homer and Pliny, they were cultivated throughout the region by the Middle Ages, especially in the mountainous areas where they are one of the few crops that can grown on steep slopes, as well as produce during colder winter months. In some of the more mountainous areas, the economy revolved around the chestnut, as people gathered them in the fall, and worked throughout the winter to sort, dry and sell them.
Chestnuts were traditionally dried to preserve them. A small, two story hut was built, and the chestnuts were laid out in the top story; a fire was started in the lower story, under a large stone shield that protected the crop and the building itself, from the heat of the fire. The fire was kept going continuously, the heat drying the nuts and the smoke would rid them of the worms that could infest and ruin an entire crop. During colder evenings, entire families would gather in the roasting hut to enjoy the warmth and aroma of roasting nuts. Dried chestnuts can be boiled, or the dried nuts ground up into flour and used in a variety of dishes, such as pasta or baked goods
There are many different varieties found throughout Italy: the smaller, flatter castagne and the rounder, fuller marroni. Up in Northeastern Italy there are several areas that still cultivate chestnuts, mostly of the marroni variety. You can still find vendors selling freshly roasted chestnuts at market stands in the fall; the aroma is divine, and the nuts a wonderful treat to enjoy on a cooler fall shopping day.
When purchasing chestnuts, look for shiny, healthy nuts without any discoloration. They should also be firm and solid, without much give between the shell and the flesh. In the markets and homes in Italy, you can still find chestnut roasters, essentially iron pans with holes, with a long handle. The nuts would be placed in the pan, sprinkled with a bit of water, and roasted over a fire. I don’t have any special equipment for roasting chestnuts, all you really need is a sheet pan and a hot oven.
To roast chestnuts, preheat your oven to 450°. With a small sharp knife, cut an “X” into the flatter side of each nut. Place the nuts on the sheet pan and roast for about 15-25 minutes, depending upon the size of the nuts. They are done when the skins around the “X” have pulled back, and the nut meat inside is fork-tender, but still firm. Peel when still warm, and enjoy as the Italians might, sprinkled with some red wine, with a glass for yourself - a lighter Schiava from Alto Adige would be perfect.