Our most recent trip to Sicily exposed us to so many beautiful sites, so many amazing people, and so many life-changing meals. The food was simply wonderful. However, one food item left me disappointed was the much-touted Roasted Chestnut.
Growing up in the United States, I’ve heard The Christmas Song an estimated 26,543 times. Everyone from Nat King Cole to Michael Buble have attempted to add their take on the classic. The opening lines get you right from the start: “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire. Jack Frost nipping at your nose.” While I’m not keen to have some guy named Jack biting my schnoz, I’ve always assumed there was nothing I’d enjoy more than some roasted Chestnuts. Despite the nostalgic tune, no one in my world had ever made the effort to gather Chestnuts, let alone roast them, and certainly never over an open fire.
Thankfully for us, the timing of our trip to Italy coincided with the ripening and harvesting of the local Chestnut crop. This meant that venders on every corner had their fires burning and their Chestnuts roasting. For a measly Euro or two, one could carry home a bag of the warm nuts and enjoy them with family and friends.
The process is quite interesting: First, the nut is scored to allow for expansion of the meat, otherwise, the nut would explode in the fire’s heat. This is done with a simple utility knife. Once scored, they are placed in the metal container and lowered into a chimney where the heat and smoke of the fire below turns them into an ash-covered nugget. The vendors listen for the popping and cracking of the hulls, much like popcorn or roasted coffee beans.
After the popping has ceased, the Chestnuts are poured into a basket to cool. They are sold by weight or individually, depending on the vendor. We were able to buy a small bagful to share for just three Euro. We were at a small town festival that was celebrating the Prickly Pear. The Chestnut vendor was on the edges of the carnival that included rides, food, and lots of small stalls set up with cheeses, dried meats, leather goods, jewelry, prickly pear in every configuration and roasted Kebabs.
We were excited to try the Chestnuts. We quickly found a bench to sit and enjoy, offering a couple to each person in our group. Peeling back the hull and pulling out the meat of the nut, we took the delicate filling into our mouths with great anticipation.
To accurately understand the flavor you have to imagine several different flavors and textures combined into one. First, the texture: Think stale Cashews. The more you chew, the more it grows in your mouth. Next, the flavor: Think stale Cashews mixed with raw soybeans, without the sweetness. Add some chalk dust and you have it. Chew on that for a while.
I know that some people absolutely love the Chestnut and it has a special place in the hearts and lives of the Italians. However, there were half-a-dozen people who tried our street fair purchase who kindly declined a second helping.
My first experience with Roasted Chestnuts did not help to make my season bright; however, being brave and eating well is my motto and I’ll be back for another go as soon as possible. Believe me, when I return to Italy I intend to try another vendor and another handful of the much-loved nut, because I don’t snub my nose at anything.
Be Brave & Eat Well