It’s that time of year again and a nostalgic one at that. The smell of “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” brings forth such feelings of warmth, traditions and the upcoming holiday season. This sweet and earthy nut is now roasting at the Marin farmers market on Sundays! Let’s take a look at one of the earliest foods ever consumed in America: its unique history, surprising health benefits, its many uses and where to find them.
The European or Spanish chestnut (Castanea sativa) is a winter crop native to the woodlands of Southern Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. They made their way to greater Europe by way of the Greeks and the Romans. Chestnuts were a staple food in much of southern Europe and south Asia for millennia. The vast majority of chestnut trees in America today come from Italy, China and Korea but the United States does have their own variety known as Castanea dentate, which was widely consumed before immigrants brought their own.
In the blight of 1904 a fungus eradicated nearly four billion American chestnut trees that had populated most of the Eastern United States and is referred to as the greatest ecological disaster to strike the world’s forest in all of history. The American chestnut was truly a heritage tree that provided the single most important food source for wildlife at that time. Rural communities relied on chestnuts as a cash crop to feed their cattle not just themselves. Luckily, a few groves in California and the Pacific Northwest escaped the affliction and are still growing today the sweet chestnuts of our past.
Five Health Benefits of Chestnuts
Chestnuts have a sweet and earthy taste, which resembles that of sweet potato. They are low in fat and high in dietary fiber and contain vitamins B1, B2, B6, C and K. Furthermore, they are rich in minerals such as calcium, magnesium, potassium and phosphorous, and they provide nutrients like folate. Just one nut contains a full day’s worth of selenium, a powerful mineral known to increase immunity by virtue of its antioxidant activity.
Increase bone density
Copper and magnesium are two important minerals that work synergistically to strengthen bone structure, both of which can be found in chestnuts. Copper helps the body absorb iron, another crucial mineral contributing to bone growth and development, which is also present in chestnuts. Magnesium helps increase bone mineral density so when these two minerals are combined, they can help prevent or slow the onset of many bone disorders, such as osteoporosis.
As a side note, owing to their mineral composition, chestnuts can be very effective in reducing the risk of anemia, a condition that is related to iron deficiency, because of the presence of iron and copper
Regulate blood pressure
Another essential mineral found in chestnuts is potassium, which helps to lower blood pressure. It functions as a vasodilator, increasing blood flow while decreasing the tension on constricted blood vessels and arteries. Potassium also controls water movement within the body. The reduction in blood pressure can lessen your risk of heart attacks and strokes and can boost overall cardiovascular health.
Chestnuts are high in dietary fiber and are considered a low glycemic food, which means they can prevent blood sugar’s fast spikes and drops, which can be detrimental for diabetic patients. Clinical research has shown that chestnuts (alongside other nuts) helped reduce and stabilize fasting blood sugar levels (and other important biomarkers) in Type 2 diabetic patients. Therefore, chestnuts can play a significant roll in the prevention, regulation and management of diabetes.
Chestnuts are one of the richest in dietary fiber content amongst all nuts: 4 grams in 3-oz serving. Predominantly they contain insoluble fibers, which accelerate the movement of food through the intestines, thus making chestnuts a powerful tool to help regulate bowel movement while reducing inflammation thereby reducing the risk of constipation and discomfort.
Promote healthy brain function
It is well-established that several vitamins, and in particular those of the B family (such as folate, riboflavin, thiamine, etc.) are important elements contributing to neuronal health and therefore to brain development, cognition and executive function. Hence, chestnuts due to their high B vitamin content are beneficial to the maintenance of brain health. In addition, the high potassium levels found in chestnuts may facilitate increased blood flow to the brain, thus promoting general good brain health.
How are Chestnuts used?
Considering Chestnuts have twice as much starch as potatoes, they were often substituted for such in Southern Europe, Asia and Africa for centuries. Chestnuts are a perfect thickening agent for soups, sauces and puree. They can be roasted, boiled or milled. It’s no surprise that the chestnut tree has been called “The Bread Tree” because once milled, the flour may be used for baking bread, pastries and cakes. And, for those of you that are gluten intolerant, you’re in luck because chestnut flour is gluten free.
Where to find fresh chestnuts and chestnut flour
Luckily, we can pick up some fresh or roasted American sweet chestnuts right here in our back yard. Timothy Boughton of Amber Oaks Berry Farm will be selling and roasting them on Sundays at the Marin Farmers market. If you would like to pick your own, head up to their farm in Auburn, CA by appointment only and bring the kids! Also, they do ship as well so you may order from them directly.
Chestnut flour is a traditional part of Italian and Corsican cuisine and can often be purchased in specialty grocery stores. Because chestnut flour is quite perishable often times grocers do not have it on hand but some will take special orders. The easiest way to get chestnut flour is to order it online; I recommend ordering Italian chestnut flour, which is known for its excellent quality.
· Historians say that the Greek army may have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-399 B.C. thanks to their chestnut provisions.
· It is said that the Japanese grew chestnuts before they cultivated rice.
· It is believed that the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe during their various campaigns and that soldiers were given chestnut porridge before going into battle.
· In Corsica, sweet chestnuts were once used as a currency. Today they are used to make polenta and beer and are a part of many traditional wedding dishes.
· Chestnuts were once considered food for the poor – today in France and northern Italy “marrons glacé” (chestnuts candied in sugar syrup and glazed) are considered a delicacy.
If you’re interested in picking your own chestnuts this season visit:
Amber Oaks Berry Farm
2770 Shanley Rd.
Auburn, CA 95603
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition under the headline: “Queen of the Forest.”