ARTICLE: VEDAT BASARAN PHOTO: ONDER DURMAZ
Warm Friend On A Cold Day
One of man’s best companions on a cold winter day, the chestnut has a wide variety of uses in everything from soups and meat dishes to desserts and candy.
It is our companion during the melancholy days of autumn and the freezing days of winter. As we weave cocoons for ourselves to keep out the cold, it sheds its outer shell to warm us up. Yes, we are talking about the chestnut, whose delicious aroma jogs our memory, taking us back to many years ago. Not that far actually, let’s go back just twenty or thirty years. Just about every house had a stove. Filled with wood or coal, our stove always had something on top as well. Sometimes a teapot, sometimes a cooking pot. And of course chestnuts, the sound of their crackling punctuating the conversation of those gathered round the stove. However much the stove has ceased to exist in today’s homes, the chestnut remains one of winter’s indispensable pleasures. And vendors continue to proffer the chestnuts they roast in the street atop small copper braziers.
A POWERHOUSE OF PROTEIN
The scientific name of the chestnut, which is harvested in October and November, is ‘Castanea’. Growing in the temperate regions of the Northern hemisphere, the chestnut tree is a member of the beech family. The sources state that around 3000 BC the Persians fed their children chestnuts to fatten them up. For the chestnut is truly a ideal food for growing children since it is a rich source of starch, protein, sucrose and tannin. Furthermore, the infusion made from boiling up its shells not only has a sedative effect but also lowers fevers. The chestnut had a wide area of use especially in pre-Renaissance Europe, where it was a staple source of nutrition for the common people. Not only was it consumed in its roasted or baked form, it was also cooked together with vegetables in stews, ground up as flour and used in breads, cookies and cakes, and made into candy or pastries. But the importance of the chestnut, which was used not only in food but also in the field of medicine, unfortunately began to wane in the 18th century.
One of the reasons for this decline in the popularity of the chestnut is that the tree only begins to bear fruit 15 years after it is planted, taking 50 years to reach its peak fruit-bearing age. Furthermore, the picking and cleaning of chestnuts is demanding work, although people were willing to submit to such rigors in periods when sources of nutrition were scarce. But the excessive cold and a disease that appeared in the 1700s were a cause of enormous damage to the chestnut tree. A diversifying economy coupled with the diversification of nutritional sources in a developing Europe meant that rather than replanting chestnuts trees, which only bear fruit after many years, people preferred instead to plant berry trees. Meanwhile the free trade in wheat and the arrival in Europe of the potato, whose nutritional value is equal to that of the chestnut, spelled the demise of this magnificent tree and its fruit.
FROM NOAH’S PUDDING TO STUFFED TURKEY
The sole species of chestnut, of which there are 16 species in the world, found in Turkey is the Anatolian chestnut (Castanea sativa), which grows over a broad area extending from the shores of Northern Anatolia to deep within the Marmara region and up to the Aegean. With a long life span of around 500 years, chestnuts are among the most majestic trees of the Anatolian forests with their giant stature that can reach as high as 30 meters. The chestnut, which centuries ago was cooked as a stew in traditional Ottoman cuisine, was used in Noah’s pudding as well. It is also the chief ingredient of the now traditional stuffed turkey that Turks have been roasting at New Year’s for half a century. It is a fact that the Bursa chestnut, whose fame has been widespread since ancient times, was spread by Anatolian Greeks first to mainland Greece and from there to Italy and the other Mediterranean countries. The reputation of the candied chestnuts made from the Bursa variety has spread far and wide today. Meanwhile chestnut honey, which adds flavor to cakes, pastries and cookies, is one of mother nature’s greatest blessings.
Let me leave you now with some scrumptious dishes, from soup to desserts, all made from chestnuts