Chestnut time for everyone

Chestnut time for everyone

Aylin Öney TAN -
A sudden drop in temperatures made it clear: It is time for roasted chestnuts! Heartwarming and hand-warming, the plump round morsels of starchy sweetness are unbeatable on a frosty morning.

There is nothing like the haunting smell of chestnuts roasting on charcoal that uplifts the spirits, especially after the shocking feeling of winter coming with the unexpected snow falls that swept the country a few days ago. Once the staple food of Roman warriors, nowadays chestnuts are becoming more and more luxurious.

The story of chestnuts seems to be entwined with wars and warriors. The European sweet chestnut tree, Castanea sativa, belongs to temperate climates, its roots deeply buried in the earth of Anatolia. It originated in Asia Minor, and in historical accounts of two and half millennia ago, there are frequent mentions of the tasty chestnuts of the kingdom of Lydia. Flourished in the lands between the ancient rivers of Hermos (Gediz) and Meander (Menderes), the Lydian Kingdom was synonymous with wealth, having minted the first ever old coin in 685 B.C. Apart from the gold found in its rivers, Lydia was the land of plenty, with abundant figs, grapes, olives, pomegranates and apples. Chestnuts were grown in the hills and were known as Sardinian nuts, after the kingdom’s capital, Sardis. This wealthy little kingdom was soon to be a target of Persians, and became a satrapy of Persia. However, the fame of its chestnuts prevailed. Greek writer Xenophon wrote around 300 B.C., that the children of Persian elite owed their angelic chubbiness on being fed on them, and Dioscorides recommends “Sardinian acorns,” or Kastana, namely chestnuts of Sardis, for its tonic properties. Actually the Latin name, also the root of the botanical name and modern European names, comes from the town of ancient Castanea in Magnesia, situated in today’s Aegean region in Turkey. The Turkish word kestane also derives from this root, and it has to be noted that there are many other ancient towns named similarly, and according to French botanist C. Bois, author of Les Plantes Alimentaires, the Romans had the name from the town of Kástanon in the Pontus, the modern city of Kastamonu, practically the epicenter of wild chestnut forests. Chestnuts of Bithynia, today’s Bursa were famous in ancient times, and especially in Ottoman period. Famous Ottoman traveler Evliya Çelebi records in the 17th century that the chestnuts of Bursa are unrivalled in the entire world. It is no wonder that the sweetest chestnut tastes comes from these two towns, best chestnut honey from forests of Kastamonu, and most sumptuous marrons glacés, from Bursa.

Roman legionnaires consumed lots of the floury chestnuts, substituting bread in many ways, and carried the seeds in many parts of the Roman Empire, even as far as to Gaul, and then to Britain. In Anatolia, chestnuts were abundant not only in Meander area, but almost in all regions, primarily, in Northern Mountains along the Black Sea coast. Chestnut was also ground into flour and made into bread or cooked like polenta, chestnut meal usually still called farina dolce, sweet flour by Italians.

Chestnut tree is sometimes called “bread-tree” as it provides sustenance through hard times, draught years or during war periods. Roman soldiers were also fond of their honey. It is said that they were defeated by native tribes of Black Sea Mountains by the hallucinogenic honey of Black Sea Mountains, but chestnut is not to blame for. It was the wild rhododendron nectar in the honey, but the appealing taste surely came from the flowers of the chestnut tree. Chestnut honey has this unmatched flavor, deeply foresty, mysterious and apparently dangerously magnetic.

To beat the melancholy of fall, console yourself with roasted chestnuts, or make yourself one of the irresistible recipes involving chestnuts or chestnut honey. After all, peeling chestnuts can prove to be therapy, or maybe not. A warning: you may end up being more depressed after peeling a sack of chestnuts or paying a sack of money for a small jar of the notoriously seductive honey! Recipe of the Week: Our recipe for the week is from Kastamonu, given by Berrin Torolsan in one of the previous issues of the wonderful magazine Cornucopia. Torolsan is inarguably the best food writer ever in Turkey, and many of the bits of information in this writing came from a piece by her, in issue 25, in 2002. Kestane Helvası is a straightforward, easy recipe (except the peeling of chestnuts), making the most of the good Kastamonu chesnuts, and seems to me like the ancestor of Mont Blanc. Just boil the chestnuts, peel and skin them, and mash or press them through a sieve. Add honey to taste. My suggestion is to use the bitter chestnut honey of Kastamonu, which will add a dramatic deepness and astonishing bite to the soothing taste of chestnuts. Blend in some fresh clotted cream, kaymak, and serve with a good helping of some more. If you want to go over the top, nestle a candied chestnut on top. Enjoy the full autumn richness when watching the leaves fall down!

Bite of the week

Cork of the Week: Make your own luxurious honey liquor to drink along with your roasted chestnuts, or with your creamy chestnut desserts. Wild chestnut honey is wildly expensive, so when I say luxurious, I really mean it, and having said that I do not hesitate to suggest a good brandy or even cognac to make this miraculous delight. Warm honey slightly till runny over a bain-marie or by putting the jar in a pot of hot water. Mix equal parts of honey and spirit of your choice, and put in a bottle, and forget in a dark and cool spot till the next snow fall, hopefully till mid-November.

Fork of the Week:
Chestnut honey is tricky to find. Some reliable brands offer choices, but there are more to explore in the markets. Eta Bal in Kadıköy market can make you taste the stuff, which might be an acquired taste for the ones who like their honey sweet and subtle. The chestnut honey, on the contrary, is deeply complex, bitter and even medicinal, but for lovers of “amaro” tastes, it’s unmatched in the heavenly world of honey. While in Kadıköy, extend your walk to Çiya, and ask for a warming plate of lamb and quince stew with chestnuts or chestnut bulgur pilaf, if you’re on your lucky day.