Saturday, November 3, 2012


Chestnuts on the tree. (Photo by Kenton Smith at )
Such a cheery sight on a dreary evening—the guy in the plaza roasting chestnuts over hot coals. When a batch is ready, he scoops the fragrant nuts into paper cones and hands them to you. You pick up a chestnut and warm your hands, before peeling and eating the toasty nut.

Chestnuts are a seasonal pleasure. Appearing just in time for the November 1 holiday of Todos Los Santos, when families visit cemeteries to pay respect to the dead, chestnuts are sold by vendors outside the cemetery gates.

Chestnut trees grow in northern Spain and in mountainous regions of the south, such as the Serranía de Ronda, Sierra de Aracena and the Alpujarra.

I heard from my friend Ann Larson in Yunquera, in the Serranía de Ronda,  that it has been a bad year for chestnuts in southern Spain. “The chestnut crop in our whole area was awful!” she wrote. “We are harvesting ours this week, but only expect to get 50 kilos or so, if we're lucky. Due to the lack of rain at critical growing times, the chestnuts are few, and small. Of course, as the crop is poor, the price is high! Ah, the life of the farmer.” (Read more about Ann’s farm here.)

On the tree, chestnuts are encased in a prickly outer husk. Each chestnut has a smooth brown shell and an inner light brown skin. The nut meat is an ivory color. For roasting on an open fire, cut a slit into the shell of each and place them on a grill over coals. In Spain, they use a cooking pot with holes punched in its bottom to set over coals. To eat them, use your fingers to pull away the shell and the skin.

Looking for a different way to prepare chestnuts, I went to a Galician cookbook, as Galicia (northwest Spain) is real chestnut country. The classic book, Cocina Gallega, by Álvaro Cunqueiro (I mistakenly bought the book in the Galego language, different enough from castellano, Castillian Spanish, that I had to buy a dictionary in order to use it), lists 17 different chestnut recipes, about half sweet and half savory.

In this recipe for pork ribs, the chestnuts take the place of potatoes alongside the meat.

Juicy ribs and toasty chestnuts for a warming fall meal.

Roast Pork Ribs with Chestnuts
Costelar de Porco con Castañas

Raw chestnuts, shells removed.
Shelling chestnuts is more like peeling an orange than cracking a nut. Cut into the outer shell then peel it away in strips. The chestnuts are cooked, then the inner skin peeled off while they are still warm.

This adobo is an aromatic rub for the pork ribs.

Serves 4.

Herb-rubbed ribs roast until tender.
2 ½ pounds pork spareribs
1 teaspoon salt
4 cloves garlic
2-3 crushed bay leaves
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
½ teaspoon sweet pimentón (paprika), preferably smoked
 Pinch of fennel seeds
5 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup white wine
1 ½ pounds fresh chestnuts
Butter and/or olive oil

Place the ribs in a pan large enough to hold them. In a mortar or blender, grind together the salt, garlic, bay, thyme, pepper, pimentón and fennel. If using a blender, add the olive oil with the spices. If using a mortar, stir the oil into the spice blend.

Spread this mixture on all sides of the ribs. Allow to stand at room temperature for 1 hour or, covered and refrigerated, up to 8 hours. Bring to room temperature before proceeding.

Preheat oven to 350ºF. Place the ribs on a rack in a roasting pan or on a broiler pan. Mix the wine with ½ cup of water and pour into the bottom of the roaster. While meat is roasting, add more water from time to time so that there is always enough liquid to cover the bottom of the roasting pan. Roast until ribs are tender, about 1 ½ hours.

While meat is roasting, shell the chestnuts. Cook them in boiling water for 30 minutes. Drain. While still warm, remove the brown skin. Shortly before serving, heat the butter and/or oil in a skillet and brown the chestnuts.

Remove ribs to a cutting board and slice them. Serve on a platter with the browned chestnuts. Pour over any pan juices.

Tender ribs and chestnuts.
Browned chestnuts substitute for potatoes alongside roast meat.


  1. That sounds DELICIOUS! I'm going to watch out for chestnuts at the grocery store and give this a shot. It's the season for ribs here now too!

  2. strangerthanfiction: Yes, isn't seasonal food wonderful?

  3. Oh Janet we saw so many of these wonderful chestnuts in markets throughout Italy and I wished we had them back home in the Pacific Northwest. Your recipe has inspired me to go searching for some!

  4. Jackie and Joel: Do chestnuts grow in the Pacific Northwest? If you don't find them, use canned (nonsweetened) chestnuts--avoid the cooking and peeling operation!

  5. I was so inspired by your recipe that I went in search of them yesterday and found them at $7 a pound in the local grocery; I didn't know they made a canned version.
    They are popular around Christmas here and often they can be found roasting outside certain hotels in downtown Seattle. I've never considered where they might have been grown. . .

    1. Jackie and Joel: Hope the dish comes out well.