The days can be quite warm
in Sicily well into October, but the first nights of the month are usually
relatively cool, even in the largest cities. That's when you'll begin to see chestnut
vendors roasting the annual harvest of castagne from the Nebrodi
and Madonie mountains or the slopes of Etna. Chestnuts are the quintessential
street food, and here in Sicily they are roasted in what look like wide,
long iron pipes. The result is a thoroughly cooked, slightly charred chestnut
dusted in a greyish ash (like those shown here).
In Catania and Palermo you'll see the white smoke wafting into the crisp
evening air in busier squares from October through March. Hardly anybody
roasts them at home.
Chestnuts are regarded as a European food popularized during the Middle
Ages. Related to the oak and the beech, the genus castanea is Eurasian
and North American. Edible European varieties are of the so-called sweet
chestnut (castanea sativa), introduced in antiquity from Asia Minor,
probably by prehistoric neolithic farmers. The ancient Greeks and Romans
subsequently introduced them over a wider range of cultivation, extending into
Britain and northeastern Gaul (France). Its hard wood is highly prized, and
chestnut trees seem to live forever.
One of the oldest trees in Europe is a chestnut tree in eastern Sicily,
the Hundred Horse Chestnut outside Sant'Alfio in
the Etna region, estimated to be well over two thousand years old. It is
certainly the oldest in Italy, its documented history dating from the fifteenth
century, and it also happens to be one of the largest (widest) trees in
Europe. However, Italy's principal chestnut-growing region ranges from Mugello
in Tuscany northward into Liguria and Piedmont. Almonds and hazelnuts are
far more common in Sicilian cuisine nowadays; chestnut flour, formerly popular in making a certain kind
of Sicilian bread, is rare in Sicilian cookery.
Castagno, Castagnaro, Castagnolo and various Sicilian surnames seem to reflect the
profession of "chestnut grower" and it appears that there were
far more chestnut trees in Sicily a few centuries ago than there are today.
There were also more oaks, though truffles are still found in the Nebrodi
region. However, the term castano also refers to the color brown
or reddish "chestnut" brown. A chestnut orchard is a castagneto
or (in Sicilian) a castagnitu. In the Etna region, not too far from the
ancient chestnut tree, is a town called Trecastagni (literally "three
chestnut trees") named for the trees that were once abundant there.
Chestnuts are rich in various minerals, especially potassium, phosphorus,
magnesium and calcium. Unlike most nuts, they contain a substantial quantity
of ascorbic acid (Vitamin C). They can, in theory, be eaten raw.
Oddly enough, while marrons glacé are considered something
of a luxury today, chestnuts were historically viewed as poor food for poor people.
That image seems to be changing.
About the Author: Roberta Gangi has written
numerous articles and one book dealing with Italian cultural and culinary
history, and a number of food and wine articles for Best of Sicily Magazine.