Italians on Italians
Beyond Toscano

The chestnut bounty

Chestnuts are a big deal in Italy. Drizzled in butter and roasted over open fires or gas stoves on street corners by sellers, their fragrance carries through the air to greet passers by – it’s one of the very Italian scents of Christmas. Known as caldarroste, you’ll see them proudly hung up on string or wires from the end of the fall, right through to late winter.

There are two main kinds of chestnut sold by Italian street vendors – marroni, a large, firm chestnut and castagne, the smaller, flatter kind. Of course, there are plenty of other varieties around, with the Marradi a much celebrated Tuscan variety. Used in cuisine as diverse as polenta, jams, pasta, gelato and wine, it even has an annual festival devoted to it – the Marradi Chestnut Festival, held every Sunday in the month of October.

Their ease of growth and long shelf-life made them popular with peasants in the middle ages, who could build up large stores of chestnuts to help them survive the winter months. But while it was perfect for winter food, growing and harvesting it is painstaking work, so eventually the price rose accordingly and what was once a staple peasant food is now seen as more of a luxury or treat, perfect for sharing over Christmas.