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Chestnuts: A Very Greek Wintertime Delicacy

20-year-old Dimitris roasts chestnuts and corn in the center of Athens. Credit: Greek Reporter

In winter, roasted chestnut street stalls are a common sight in Greek cities. The sellers have small, portable braziers, heaps of roasted chestnuts ready to sell in paper cornets, and yet more that are still roasting.

Dimitris, a twenty-year-old selling the roasted delicacies to Athenians and visitors alike from his stall near the Athens Academy in the center of the Greek capital, is one of the many people who practice this ancient trade in the wintertime.

Dimitris told Greek Reporter that business is not doing as well compared to pre-pandemic times, however, noting that he is busier during the summer months when he grills and sells corn. “Chestnuts are only for winter,” he says. “You cannot find them in the summer.”

However, he enjoys the job. “I come across many different people, I chat with them, I have fun…It’s much better than working as a delivery person for an e-food company,” he tells Greek Reporter.

Chestnuts are a very versatile nut; their delicate flavor is completely unique and unforgettable. Credit: Greek Reporter

Chestnuts and the Greek winter are almost synonymous

Every Greek child has pestered their parents for one of those paper horns full of chestnuts. Chestnuts and the Greek winter are almost synonymous.

Chestnuts are so popular because they are extremely versatile. Recently, students from the Thessaly University of Applied Sciences (TEI) and Peloponnese University of Applied Sciences have even made gluten-free bread using flour from chestnuts as part of a project to promote foods that are rare on the modern Greek table.

You can try chestnuts on their own, whether roasted, boiled, or baked in the oven as well as use them in your recipes to add a unique flavor and color to your culinary pursuits, as both your sweet and salted creations have much to gain from this ingredient’s mellow, rich taste.

Although they are the perfect accompaniment to pork and poultry (try them in your Thanksgiving stuffing!), Greece’s traditional confectionery is where they are mostly featured. Enjoy them as a spoon sweet in jams and spreads. You will certainly also love them in cakes, such as tsoureki, vasilopita, and sweet breads.

Chestnuts grow everywhere in Greece from the forests of Macedonia in the north all the way down to the Cretan mountains in the south; the annual harvest, usually in October, is cause for celebration in many parts of the country.

Production has increased in recent years, and more Greeks in the mountainous regions are turning to the cultivation of chestnuts as international demand, especially from Italy, has picked up.

History of the chestnut

The sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa), which was originally native to Asia Minor, was introduced into Europe from Sardis. The nut at that time was called the “Sardian Nut.”

It has been a staple food in southern Europe, Turkey, and southwestern and eastern Asia for millennia. It largely replaced cereals in areas where these would not grow well if at all in mountainous Mediterranean areas.

Alexander the Great and the Romans even planted chestnut trees across Europe while on their various campaigns. The Greek Army is said to have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401-= to 399 BC thanks to their stores of chestnuts.

Ancient Greeks, like the physician, pharmacologist, and botanist Dioscorides, as well as Romans such as Galen, the prominent physician and philosopher of Greek origin, wrote of chestnuts’ medicinal properties. To early Christians, they also symbolized chastity.

Until the introduction of the potato, entire forest-dwelling communities which had scarce access to wheat flour relied on chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates.
In certain parts of Italy, a cake made of chestnut flour is used as a substitute for potatoes.

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