Most people’s chestnut romance begins with the ears. “The Christmas Song,” with its famous roasting-on-an-open-fire lyric, is so warm that you want to cuddle up in it like a favorite sofa throw.
My relationship with chestnuts began with my nose, almost 20 years ago, when my wife and I took our then-3-year-old son, Sam, to Venice and Rome over Christmastime.
The holiday season in Italy is an archipelago of nighttime neighborhood festivals decorated with strands of twinkling lights in parks and marketplaces, where makeshift booths of cooks, enveloped in smoke, slow-roast the stuffed-pork holiday delicacy called porchetta. Everywhere you go, the crisp winter air is fragrant with the toasty smell of roasting chestnuts.
Ah, that scent. To me, chestnuts are like those other Italian marvels, white truffles, in this respect: As good as they are to eat, they might be even better to smell. Don’t get me wrong: I ate plenty of chestnuts, and I even came to appreciate them. But years later, I recalled the smell more fondly than the taste.
I don’t think I’m alone in my chestnut ambivalence. A few of us, sure, will add some to a stuffing or make them into a soup. For the most part, though, we view chestnuts nostalgically, as a quaint food from America’s more innocent past.
Eventually, my passion for all things grilled and barbecued got me past romancing the nut and actually cooking it. I wanted to see if I could figure out why they were so popular.
Much like the artichoke or the conch, the chestnut is one of those foods that cause you to wonder how a human ever first came to eat it. On the tree branch, a chestnut is a spiky green burr. Remove the burr, and underneath is the smooth, sable-colored skin that we see in farmers markets this time of year.
The second thing I learned is that I didn’t have to fire-roast a chestnut. I could boil it, bake it, eat it raw, do pretty much what I wanted with it. But a zillion Italians can’t be wrong: Fire-roasting is the way to go.
The embers create the heavenly, deep aroma we associate with chestnuts and add a woodsy touch to the nut’s starchy, sweet flavor. And fire-roasting the nuts is easy. You simply rinse them to clean off any grit, cut an “X” on their rounded side to release steam (otherwise, they might explode) and put them over the fire for a few minutes.
I prepare them now as I did the first time: on the grates of a kettle-style grill over a medium-hot charcoal fire. When the skin scorches and peels back from the meat, after about 20 minutes, I let them cool just a little (they’re easier to peel when they’re warm). Then I bite into the creamy meat of the lightly charred nut, and sometimes I am taken back to that Christmastime in Italy.
To be sure, chestnuts can have a chalky or starchy taste. Perhaps that is why, although I enjoy eating them the classic way — straight out of their fire-roasted shells — I also love adding them to a dish, particularly an Italian one.
Mostarda, for example. The chestnut takes extraordinarily well to honey, and by adding a little mustard to the mix, I have a variant on the sublime spicy-syrup fruit dish, a favorite of the small northern Italian town of Cremona. The spiced honey chestnuts pair fabulously with cheeses.
For an elegant pasta dish, I add tagliatelle to a chunky sauce of crumbled roasted chestnuts with pancetta and sage. It is like biting into a taste of Italy at Christmastime.
Oh, and that smell wafting up from the plate? That’s romance. All you need now is a little dinner music. I think you know what to play.
Shahin writes Smoke Signals monthly. Follow him on Twitter @jimshahin.