We’re willing to bet that your mind goes to the exact place ours does when you hear the word “chestnuts”.
You’re thinking about Christmas, right?
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire and all of that. It’s such a tradition, especially in the United States, that it’s immortalised in song. But what may not be in the America tradition is the tendency to enjoy a glass of wine alongside your chestnuts. In fact, it may have never even occurred to you to drink wine with this festive favourite before.
That’s where Italy changes things up a little bit.
Chestnuts and wine is a traditional combination in many parts of the country. And contrary to the traditions that are followed elsewhere, roasting chestnuts isn’t something that’s reserved for Christmas. If anything, chestnuts are a food that associates more closely with the harvest period in Italy.
However, the history of the food actually goes much deeper than that. You can look to the era of the Romans to see when Italians first started their love affair with chestnuts.
The Early Origins of the Chestnut Tradition
One of the things you may not know about chestnuts is that they’re extremely nutritious. In fact, they’re an excellent source of energy if you need to give yourself a boost when you feel like you’re flagging.
And in ancient Roman times, this was one of the reasons why chestnuts became so beloved. Their high availability, coupled with their energy-boosting properties, made them extremely popular amongst the working classes in the empire. And this wasn’t limited to the Romans, either. Chestnuts served a similar purpose for many ordinary people throughout the middle ages. Their abundant nature made them one of the most accessible affordable foodstuffs around.
In fact, they were so beloved during this period that they were often used as a form of currency. People would trade goods and services for chestnut because they knew they were getting a strong food source.
There is also evidence that people used to make flour out of chestnuts. This was used to prepare a lot of tasty recipes and you may still be able to find it in some specialist stores today.
It’s also important to note just how important chestnuts were as a food source during this time. Remember that agricultural technology was nowhere near the level that it is right now during the Roman era or the Middle Ages. Famine was a common problem, especially when less hardy crops fell victim to poor weather and vermin.
Chestnuts are a much hardier food source, which meant that ancient people could always rely on them when other food sources proved lacking. Of course, advances in technology, particularly in the agricultural field, eventually led to fewer people needing chestnuts to survive.
Over time, cereals usurped chestnuts’ role as the main energy provider for regular people. While the food was no less plentiful, it was no longer used as a currency or a major food source.
It is perhaps during this period that chestnuts evolved from an everyday foodstuff into a little bit of a delicacy. And of course, the time of year that they ripen makes them the perfect choice for both harvest and festive feasts.
The Association With Saint Martin’s Day
We’ve already covered the association that chestnuts have with Christmas in some countries.
In Italy, however, they are much more associated with Saint Martin’s day. This takes place on 11th November every year and is often celebrated with a feast where chestnuts and wine and some of the main attractions.
Saint Martin was a Roman soldier. However, he was not baptised into Christianity until he was already an adult. Later on, he rose to the positon of bishop in a French town. Martin was known as a very generous man, with one fable saying that he once sliced his cloak in half so that he could share it with somebody who was in need.
Perhaps it is for this that he’s venerated with feasts and other celebrations. You might even argue that his desire to serve those in need mirrors the function of the chestnut in ancient times.
Depending on where you are in Italy, the chestnut traditions differ. Some people like to soak their chestnuts in water and wine before they cook them. Others will roast them first and then serve them in the glass itself. This allows the chestnut to both warm the wine and absorb some of its qualities. When you decide to eat the food, you’ll get a host of interesting flavours.
Of course, this also means that there are various wines that you can use alongside chestnuts…
The Wines and When to Use Them
Let’s assume that you’re simply roasting your chestnuts to eat alongside a glass of wine.
If that’s the case, you’ll want to pair the food with a young white wine, preferably of the sparkling variety. Chestnuts are a dense food, though they’re not especially rich. That means you want an Italian wine that offers a nice refresher, as well as cleansing your palate.
That changes if you decide to cook the chestnuts in wine or serve the chestnut in a glass of wine. In those cases, your options open up because you’re actively imbuing the chestnut with the flavours in the wine!
We prefer a nice Italian red with this serving method. Something like Amarone or Barolo can add some unique flavours. However, you may want to keep some water handy just to cleanse your palate between servings.
The Final Word
Many of the people reading this may be surprised that roasted chestnuts have meaning and tradition that extends beyond Christmas. Yet others may be surprised to discover that it’s possible to pair such a simple food with wines to create something of a delicacy.
All that we want to do is to recommend that you give chestnuts and Italian wine a try. You may just find yourself falling in love with a new dish!