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Sweet chestnuts, autumn’s bounty, spread from the forests of Anatolia to feed the Roman legions and provide daily sustenance to most of Europs. Today they are reserved for festiviites.
As one trudges home from work on a gloomy winter’s evening, shivering in the cold and wet, the scent of roasting chestnuts that wafts through city streets dissolves the melancholy like magic. Instantly one is transported back to the carefree days of childhood.
The story of the chestnut itself starts like a fairy tale. In the depths of history, some two and a half thousand years ago, the kingdom of Lydia flourished in the neighbouring valleys of two ancient rivers, the Hermos (Gediz) and the Meander (Menderes), a little way inland from the Aegean coast of Anatolia. A prosperous realm of skilful farmers, brave soldiers and resourceful tradesmen, its wealth derived partly from gold – panned from the waters of the Pactolus, a tributary of the Hermos – and partly from the quality of the crops grown in its fertile lands. The first ever gold coin, it is thought, was minted in Lydia in 685BC, during the reign of the legendary King Croesus, heralding the start of a monetary economy.
Apples, quinces, nuts, pomegranates, figs, wines and olives… the bounty of Lydia was the envy of her neighbouring Greek colonies. But the greatest envy was reserved for her chestnuts, which grew in such abundance on the mountainsides and hills that they came to be known as “Sardinian nuts”, after Sardis, the kingdom’s capital, and were frequently mentioned in the literature of the time. A text by the Greek dietician Diphilos offers advice on serving these tasty, nourishing Sardinian nuts: eaten raw they are hard to digest; roasted they are digested more easily; but they are best eaten boiled. Diphilos notes that the chestnuts of Italy originally came from Sardis.
In 546 BC, the Persians sacked Sardis and made Lydia a Persian satrapy. But the region’s chestnuts remained sought after. In the fourth century BC, Xenophon recorded that the children of the Persian elite were fattened on them. And in the year 1AD, Dioscorides recommended “Sardinian acorns”, or kastana, for their binding and tonic properties.
The chestnut, easily grown from seed, was established in the Mediterranean before the Romans, but it was they who took it to the furthest corners of the empire. The Roman legionnaire received his ration in the form of polenta, which was then made from ground chestnuts. In the north of the empire the tree was grown less for its fruit than for timber: its rot-resisting durability made it ideal for boats, bridges and barracks.
The Romans renamed the old Sardinian nut castanea, from which are derived the Turkish kestane, the English chestnut and the botanical name Castanea. According to the French botanist C Bois, author of Les plantes alimentaires (1928), the Romans took the name from the Greek city of Kástanon in the Pontus (the modern Turkish city of Kastamonu), where dense forests of chestnut grow to this day. But there are other Greek cities called Kástanon which may have lent it their name – in Magnesia on the Aegean, and in Thessaly.
Modern botanical research confirms that Castanea sativa, known as the European chestnut, spread from the East to Europe, carried mainly by people, with the assistance of squirrels and crows. American, Chinese and Japanese chestnuts are related but different species.
Chestnuts are handsome trees, turning a fiery orange in autumn and reaching a ripe old age. The oldest ever recorded – said to be over 2,000 years old –is the “castagno di cento cavalli” on Mount Etna, so called because the Queen of Aragon paused by it with an entourage of 100 knights on her way to Naples in 1308. Turkey has its ancient specimens, too: hollow, like very old plane trees, they are probably a more modest 200 to 350 years old.
In spring the catkins that hang from the base of the chestnut’s glossy lanceolate leaves are covered with tiny creamy flowers, like snowflakes. The fruit begin to develop in early summer when they are like pompoms, ripening in autumn into bright green pericarps, knows as burrs or husks, with treacherous spikes (the Turkish for sea urchin is deniz kestanesi, sea chestnut). The reward is the nut, often found in twos or threes within the husk. They have that familiar deep red-brown leathery peel. The seed inside, which grows encased in a second, paper-thin inner skin, was the staple food of the Old World, long before maize and potatoes were brought from the New World. Chestnuts are richer in carbohydrates than wheat or other cereal grains and rich in vitamins B, B2 and C, calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron.
Ancient texts tell us that chestnuts come from many different parts of Anatolia, from the Tmolos Mountains (Bozda¤lar›) and Mysia in the west, from Mount Olympus in Bithynia, further north and all along the Black Sea.
Chestnuts still grow in these places, mainly in the wild, but also cultivated in groves. In Ottoman times, chestnut groves, like walnut and olive groves, belonged to the imperial treasury. In Domaniç, an hour’s drive south of Bursa, there is a chestnut grove with some centuries-old trees. There was a shepherd in this village, a story goes, who often complained: “If only I were sultan…” One day the sultan passed by, and the villagers, making fun of the poor man, told the sultan, who sent for him and asked if it was true. “Yes,” came the answer. “Throw your cap in the air,” the sultan said, “and you are the sultan until it touches the ground. Any wish you make will be fulfilled.” The shepherd threw his cap as high as he could, frantically repeating, “Let the chestnut groves be ours, let the chestnut groves be ours.” His wish was granted, and the grove belongs to this day to the villagers, who proudly tell visitors their story.
Stuffed with Chestnut
100g chestnuts (fresh or roasted)
1 medium white cabbage
1 cup olive oil
1 large onion
1 cup rice (rinsed)
2 cups hot water
1 tablespoon brown sugar
Black pepper and salt
Although this long-forgotten dish from Bursa is time-consuming, it keeps well for several days in the fridge and is very festive and elegant. My mother gives a practical piece of advice: for this recipe she buys a cone of roasted chestnuts from a street-seller on her way home.
1 Rinse the chestnuts, make a slit in the peel and place, still wet, in a preheated oven. Bake for about 10 minutes. When they are cool enough to handle, shell and skin them, break into large pieces and set aside.
2 Wash the cabbage whole. Remove the stem and cut away any tough stalks. Place in a large pan and blanch in salted boiling water for 2–5 minutes until tender but firm. Rinse in cold water and allow to cool.
3 While the cabbage leaves are cooling, start preparing the filling. Chop the onion finely. Heat the olive oil in a shallow pan and fry the onions until translucent.
4 Add the rice to the onions and fry a little more, then stir in one cup of hot water and season with the cinnamon, sugar, salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, for 5–10 minutes until all the liquid is absorbed. Transfer to a dish.
5 Separate the cabbage leaves carefully without tearing them.
6 Take one leaf, halve or quarter it depending on the size, cut away the stalky bits, and place a little rice filling and some pieces of chestnut in the centre. Fold the edges of the leaf over the filling. Then roll like a cigarette to enclose the filling completely.
7 Place the dolmas side by side in the shallow pan used to cook the rice. Add one cup of hot water, bring to the boil and simmer, covered, for 15–20 minutes.
8 Leave the dolmas to cool in the pan, covered, then arrange them on a serving dish. Serve cold, garnished with lemon slices for extra tang and parsley leaves.
The other recipes in this article: Boiled Chestnuts; Kestane Çorbası (Cream of Chestnut Soup); Kuşlu Pilav (Chestnut Pilav); Kestane Dondurmasi (Chestnut Ice Cream); Kestane Helvası (Chestnut Helva)
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