WHY CRETANS GO NUTS ABOUT CASTANEA SATIVA
It doesn’t take much to get a harvest festival going in Crete. Like most Mediterranean people we’re always happy to celebrate the grape harvest over a glass or two of wine. We’re equally delighted to raise a tumbler of ouzo when the olives have been gathered in. But then we have one extra special festival that’s a bit more unusual – every autumn, all over the island, we have ‘Chestnut Festivals’!
Festivals take place all over the island in late October. We have one quite close to us in Western Crete at Elos village. It’s a great day out with chestnuts being roasted on braziers and local traders filling the village square with honey, figs and all manner of other local produce. Whilst the weather is still mild, having the smell of hot chestnuts hanging on the air very much means the start of winter for us, and more than one glass of Raki is downed to warm up old bones!
Sweet chestnuts are an ancient staple in Crete. There are few large plains or expanses of flat land on the island where you can plant and grow extensive cereal crops. That meant the mountain people never had much wheat flour to use – unlike Italy where durum wheat led to the whole ‘pasta economy’. So, as far back as the bronze ages and Minoan culture, we planted chestnut trees on the hills then cultivated them, harvested them, dried them and then ground them for flour as the local ‘carb’. If you’ve never used chestnut flour yourself it has a slightly sweet and nutty taste (well, it’s a nut!) That makes it perfect for sweet pastry deserts, and perhaps that’s why Cretans have such a sweet tooth.
As ever we Cretans make the most of the local produce that grows on trees. It not only represents the true taste of the island, it minimises our carbon footprint. If you can find chestnuts (fresh or frozen) in your local supermarket (or online) here’s a recipe you might like to try for a delightful vegetarian Stifado – a flavour-packed stew made of chestnuts, mushrooms and small onions. It’s a perfect winter warmer.
Vegetarian stifado with mushrooms and chestnuts
The famous Greek stew but in a vegetarian version, with hearty mushrooms and chestnuts slowly cooked together with pearl onions and wine. More of a recipe from the mountain, the stifado is made a little differently in each family and it is usually made when the weather becomes cool.
The word comes from the Venetians (in Italian “stufato” means stewed meat) and the dish was probably born in the Middle Ages by the influence of Venice over-lordship over the Greek islands.
This is a recipe that can be altered with a variety of ingredients, just as a Greek cook would. Maybe you would like to add carrots or potatoes, well, as long as you keep the onions it is a free-form Greek stew.
Preparation time: 15 min
Cooking time: 60 minutes
500 g fresh mushrooms (Portobello or Champignons)
400 gr. chestnuts (fresh or frozen)
1 kg fresh tomatoes or 450 g canned tomato juice
500 g pearl onions (or small onions, cut in quarters)
100 ml. olive oil
250 ml. dry red wine
1 bay leaf
Salt, freshly ground pepper
If using pearl onions, soak them in water to peel easier, pat dry with a paper towel. For classic onions, peel and cut them in quarters.
Clean the mushrooms with a soft brush to remove dirt (do not soak), separate the foot from the hat and cut the hat either in two or four (depending on the size). If they are smaller, leave the hat whole.
If using fresh chestnuts, use a sharp knife and cut a line along one side, deep enough to open the shell but not to section the core. This will let the shell loosen itself from the nut as it cooks. Put them in the microwave for 1-2 minutes, in small batches (10-12 at a time). As soon as they are cool enough to handle, pull and snap off the shells, being sure to also take off the skin between the shell and the chestnut. You will end up with a pile of yellowish-white chestnuts that can be stored in the sealed bag in the fridge for several days. If using frozen chestnuts, they are already cleaned; you just need to thaw them few hours before cooking.
If using fresh tomatoes, grate them on a fine grater.
In a wide, non-stick pot, heat the olive oil and sauté the mushrooms for 10 minutes. Add the onions and sauté for another 2 minutes, until soft and translucent. Add the wine and let simmer on low heat for another 10 minutes. Add the fresh or canned tomatoes and bay leaf and let it simmer for 20 minutes, until it thickens. Add the chestnuts and let them cook for another 20 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper and add if necessarily.
Serve hot, with a slice of feta cheese and crunchy bread.