There are few customs more autumnal than collecting chestnuts and roasting them over a fire. Chestnuts, from the sweet chestnut tree (Castanea sativa), are still a staple part of people’s diets in many mountainous regions of the Mediterranean. As a wild edible, it can be prepared in countless ways. According to Corsican tradition, for example, twenty two different dishes are made from chestnut flour for a wedding day feast.1
The trunk is spirally twisted with a smooth, greyish brown bark featuring upright cracks or splits. Shiny, short-petiolated leaves are oblong or lance-shaped from a wedge or heart-shaped base with finely pointed teeth and 15 to 20 parallel veins. They remain on trees till late autumn and turn a pale gold.
Both male and female flowers appear as stiff insect-pollinated catkins, although some say the catkins have a sickly fragrance. Shiny brown fruit are enclosed by a two-to-four valve cupule featuring a spiky case and bristly tail. Grows about 30m (98.4 ft) in height.
A deciduous tree, thought to have been introduced to Britain by Roman legions as a source of food, C. sativa is widely distributed across Europe and the Mediterranean.
Habitat and Distribution
Deciduous woodland, hedgerows, parks, gardens.
Parts Used for Food
Nuts (or fruits), leaves, buds flowers
Chestnuts start to fall in autumn; the first few usually contain empty cases until mature nuts fall around October.
Chestnuts are a truly versatile nut. They can be roasted, pureed or candied, made into jam and ice cream, or ground into flour, or used for porridge, soup or mash (polenta in Italy) and mixed with vegetables and meat. They can also be pickled, boiled with Brussel sprouts, stewed and baked with red cabbage, fried in oil and made into fritters.2,3,4
Sweet Chestnut Recipes
- Wild Winter Chestnut Soup
- Chestnut Honey Sauce
- Chestnut Stuffing
- Sweet Chestnut Jam
- Pear and Chestnut Tart with Rosemary and Orange Syrup
Nutritionally, chestnuts are rich in carbohydrates, high in protein (although their protein content is less than other nuts) and low in fat and cholesterol.5 Chestnut flour is valued for containing neither gluten or cholesterol, for example, as well as being low in fat, although they do contain a large amount of starch.3 Chestnuts are also unique among nuts in being high in vitamin C.1
Herbal Medicine Uses
Chestnuts are highly nutritious and therefore helpful during convalescence. 6 In modern herbal medicine, sweet chestnut’s bark, leaves, flowers and nuts are considered to be strengthening, calming, astringent, and digestive, even though the tree is not so well used today.7
Sweet chestnut leaves may be used to treat diarrhoea, heavy menstrual bleeding and rheumatism, lower back pain, stiff joints and muscles, as well as occasionally coughs and bronchitis, and sore throats and pharyngitis (as a gargle), because of their mild decongestant qualities.6
Sweet chestnut wood is fairly hard and durable; its timber has sometimes been used as a substitute to oak. The wood is easy to split but hard to bend.5 It has been used for general carpentry, furniture-making, for front doors, wainscoting, sculptures and carving, railway sleepers, bands around wine casks (in southern wine-growing regions), and to support grape vines. It was once used for churches and other buildings. Sweet chestnut wood has also been used in the manufacture of cellulose.4,7
Take care not to confuse the fruits of the sweet chestnut tree (C. sativa), which are edible, with the fruits of the horse chestnut tree (Aesculus hippocastanum), which are inedible.
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- Kiple, K. F. & Ornelas, K. C. (eds.) (2000) The Cambridge World History of Food. Cambridge, UK?; New York: Cambridge University Press.
- Mabey, R. & Blamey, M. (1974) Food for Free. London: Collins.
- Vaughan, J. G. et al. (2009) The New Oxford Book of Food Plants. Oxford?; New York: Oxford University Press.
- Duke, J. A. (1989) CRC Handbook of Nuts. Boca Raton, Fla: CRC Press.
- Wyse Jackson, P. (2013) Ireland’s Generous Nature: The Past and Present Uses of Wild Plants in Ireland. St. Louis, MO: Missouri Botanical Garden Press.
- Conway, P. (2002) Tree Medicine: A Comprehensive Guide to the Healing Power of Over 170 Trees. London: Piatkus.
- Cleene, M. D. & Lejeune, M. C. (2003) Compendium of Symbolic and Ritual Plants in Europe: Vol I Trees & Shrubs/Vol II Herbs. Ghent: mens & cultuur uitgevers n.v.