Castanea sativa or Sweet Chestnut is a species of flowering plant in the family Fagaceae, native to Europe and Asia Minor, and widely cultivated throughout the temperate world. A substantial, long-lived deciduous tree, it produces an edible seed, the chestnut, which has been used in cooking since ancient times. The Latin sativa means "cultivated by humans"
The word “chestnut” has travelled through time and across Europe! The English form is found around the 1560s as “chasten nut”, and that derives from the Middle English “chasteine”, which itself comes from Old French “chastain” in the 12th century – the Modern French form is châtaigne.
That comes from a Latin form “castanea”, but before that from the Greek “kastaneia”, which the Greeks thought meant either "nut from Castanea" in Pontus, or "nut from Castana" in Thessaly, but probably both places are named for the trees, not the other way around.
From the Latin Castanea (as in Castanea saliva - sweet chestnut) we also get castanets, those finger clicky things used by flamenco dancers, hence too that the sweet chestnut although native to Europe generally are though to have originated on the Iberian peninsular - Spain.
Sweet chestnuts grow into beautiful tall trees, with elegant large, but quite narrow serrated leaves, which develop before the flowers appear. The flowers grow as long golden yellow catkins, which are reminiscent of arboreal fireworks, especially when seen en masse covering the canopy of native woodlands.
The flowers of both sexes are borne in 10–20 cm (4–8 in) long, upright catkins, the male flowers in the upper part and female flowers in the lower part. In the northern hemisphere, they appear in late June to July, and by autumn, the female flowers develop into spiny cupules containing 3-7 brownish nuts that are shed during October.
Sweet Chestnuts are not to be confused with Horse Chestnuts (inedible conkers). The horse chestnut fruit is soft with short stubby spikes containing one rounded conker (although very rarely two or three). The sweet chestnut spikes are longer, with hair-like spikes which make the skins harder to tackle, and contain numerous nuts that have a flat side to them.
The raw nuts, though edible, have a skin which is astringent and unpleasant to eat when still moist; after drying for a time the thin skin loses its astringency but is still better removed to reach the white fruit underneath. Cooking dry in an oven or fire normally helps remove this skin. Chestnuts are traditionally roasted in their tough brown husks after removing the spiny cupules in which they grow on the tree, the husks being peeled off and discarded and the hot chestnuts dipped in salt before eating them. Roast chestnuts are traditionally sold in streets, markets and fairs by street vendors with mobile or static braziers.
Unlike most commercial nuts which contain relatively large amounts of protein, sweet chestnuts consist of up to 70% starch, between 2 and 5 % fat and only 2 to 4 % protein.
Native to the deciduous woodlands of southern Europe, western Asia and north Africa, and a member of the same family as oak and beech, the sweet chestnut is thought to have been introduced to the British Isles by the Romans.
The sweet chestnut is a long-lived tree which can reach huge stature and girth, often developing burrs and becoming hollow in advanced old age.
In the UK, the best known ancient sweet chestnut is the Tortworth Chestnut, in Gloucestershire. Written records of this remarkable tree go back to the 12th century and it was said to have been a boundary tree to the Tortworth estate at about this time. Although only part of it remains today, many of the branches of its huge twisted trunk have rooted to become trees themselves, giving the appearance of a small wood.
To the ancient Greeks, the sweet chestnut was dedicated to Zeus and the name castanea comes from Castonis, a Town in Thessaly in Greece which cultivated the tree extensively. However, the Greek name was Sardis Glans, (sardis acorn). This name comes from the name of the capital of Lydia, now in Turkey, from where the trees originated. They were also called the "acorns of Zeus", as were walnuts.
In the world of dreams it is said that eating the fruit indicates a business problem, and cooking them implies that the dreamer could be exploited.
Like many other plants sweet chestnuts were once used in love divination rituals. One involved placing appropriately named nuts near the fire to see which exploded first in the heat.
Maidens, name your chestnuts true.
The first to burst belongs to you!
The sweet chestnut also features in Christian lore. It signifies victory over temptations of the flesh, and chastity.
An infusion of the fresh leaves was used in the past in a treatment for whooping cough, and a decoction of bark was relied upon for fevers. Today’s herbalists still recommend the use of the sweet chestnut for dealing with fevers, diarrhoea, piles and respiratory problems, particularly coughs, catarrh and whooping-cough.
A brown and ‘fast’ honey-coloured dye once used in the tanning industry (for dying leather) can be extracted from the tannins present in in the husk of the sweet chestnut - hence ‘chestnut’ is also used to describe such a colour, especially when in connection with horses - a 'chestnut mare’.
un chât'nyi, un mârronnyi = a sweet chestnut tree
eune châtaine = a chestnut
un mârron = a large chestnut
un coffîn = a chestnut burr (prickly case)