|Chestnuts over the hot coals: a mixture of two species of Castanea.|
The traditional edible chestnut in Europe is the Sweet Chestnut, Castanea sativa, potentially a magnificent big tree with many fine ornamental characters. It doesn't fruit reliably in this country, so finding trees with a good crop of nuts just adds to the pleasure. The nuts are therefore imported from southern Europe, mostly Italy. They're not very big - 3 cm across would be large. When I was in Vancouver a few years ago I got a bag of chestnuts from a 'brassiere' (an indelible malapropism) and noticed they were much larger than normal. In the past two or three autumns I've seen the same nuts for sale here, and although I knew they weren't C. sativa I didn't pay them much attention. This year I bought some to make a deliberate comparison and to try to identify them.
|Chestnuts from China, either Castanea mollissima or C. crenata. The enormous dark hilum (seed scar) is very obvious.|
|A comparison of two species: the Chinese nuts (left) and Italian C. sativa (right) the differences in size, colour, hilum, etc, are very visible.|
I carefully tested the flavour by both roasting and boiling nuts together. There is no doubt that for flavour C. sativa wins hands-down: sweet and soft-textured. The Chinese nuts are much more coarsely textured and have only a whisper of sweetness. They're not unpleasant, but they're pointless if C. sativa is available. I just hope that in this case the European goods can hold up their market share against Chinese imports...