CHIAVARI, Italy – Nothing says Italy in the winter like the sweet scent of roasted chestnuts sold from a street vendor in the piazza of your favorite town. It’s a centuries old tradition that has survived the test of time for one simple reason – roasted chestnuts are irresistible. They are called caldarroste (hot roasted) in Italian and all you have to do to find them is follow your nose and look for the crowds.
You can recreate that same delicious taste and smell at home. It may not be as much fun as buying them out on the street, but it’s easy to do. In Italy there are two types of edible chestnuts – one is small and flat and is known as castagna commune, the other, the marrone, is bigger and plumper.
Over the centuries chestnuts have provided an important source of income for many Italian towns and regions. Those days still live in the memory of many, and every November chestnut festivals are held in many remote areas of Italy, like the villages of Monte Amiato in Tuscany.
The secret to making good roasted chestnuts is in knowing how to cut their shell so it’s easier to peal them when they are cooked. Here are some tips from one of my favorite cooks, Marcella Hazen.
1. After washing the nuts in cold water, soak them in lukewarm water for about 30 minutes. This step softens the shell and makes it easer to cut.
2. When the nuts have finished soaking, with the tip of a sharp knife, start cutting at one edge of the flat side and go all the way around the plump belly of the chestnut. Don’t cut into the flat side and keep the cut shallow so you don’t cut into the chestnut meat.
Other cooks say that the best way to cut chestnuts is to make an X or a cross on the flat end. I’m not a chestnut expert but I think I would X them as that is the way my grandmother did it, and they always turned out pretty good. Try it both ways and see which one you like best.
How to Roast Chestnuts
To duplicate that tantalizing flavor of roasting chestnuts, first heat your oven to 475 degrees. When the oven has reached that temperature spread the cut chestnuts on a baking sheet and put the baking sheet in the oven on the middle rack.
When the chestnuts are tender, about 30 to 45 minutes, take them out of the oven and wrap them tightly in a cloth towel. You want them to steam for about 10 minutes. Unwrap and serve.