I’m seeing a slow but growing interest in learning the foodways of the past, and I’m thankful for that because for years I’ve been disturbed by how many people have no concept of how food is prepared or preserved. Some day I’m going to do a post on just that, comments, as I’ve observed them, while doing cooking demos.
Today we’re going to take a brief look at a flour substitute that was once common, but which few have any knowledge of today. It can be used alone or combined with other types of flour and its claims to fame are that it is naturally slightly sweet, gluten-free, and has a low oil content.
Chestnuts were native to North America as well as Europe. I’ve seen numerous articles saying that Native Americans taught the Europeans to use chestnuts, however, I’m not buying the story. Chestnuts are one of those foods that seem to have evolved in various cultures simultaneously as people explored edible food sources around them.
Because there is no gluten, bread made entirely of chestnut flour does not rise like wheat flour and was referred to as “downbread” in earlier centuries. Thomas Harriot  said of the Algonquians in North Carolina: “Chestnvts there are in diuers places great store: some they vse to eate rawe, some they stamp and boil to make spoonmeate, and with some being sodden they make such a manner of downbread as they vse their beanes.”
Among the early accounts of chestnuts and chestnut bread in America are De Vries’, “chestnuts, which they dry to eat”, [1600’s]; Rev. Johannes Megapolensis, Jr.  who found, “an abundance of chestnuts, plums, hazelnuts, large walnuts”, etc.; and Kalm who saw meal made of chestnuts and walnuts [1740’s]. Gerarde  noted, “Some affirme, that of raw chestnuts dried and afterwards turned into meale, there is made a kind of bread”. In later years, F. W. Waugh [1912-15] wrote of the Iroquois that they added crushed chestnuts to corn meal to make bread.
James Mooney documented Cherokee bean bread, chestnut bread, cornmeal dumplings, hominy, and corn gruel in a report published in 1891 and a Congressional report noted that chestnut bread was, “a great boon”, in supplementing rations on the Qualla boundary. “…the nuts being used very generally as food, both in the natural state and also in the prepared, “chestnut bread”, being a staple. This is nourishing and quite palatable, even to those not accustomed to its use. This, with corn prepared in various manners, with a little bacon and coffee, makes the ration of the ordinary Cherokee family”.
Chestnut bread remained a staple in Cherokee homes well into the 20th century. “…but in many homes food is always prepared in iron pots over a fireplace. Some delicacies, such as bean-bread, corn-bread, chestnut-bread, sweet hominy, or ‘cunahanna,’” were prepared. The latter was a dish made of whole corn, corn meal, beans, walnuts, hickory nuts, and wild honey. “This dish is very delicious, but three days are required to make it.”
A member of De Soto’s party wrote in his journal of the Indians in Florida using chestnuts and compared them to European chestnuts in 1539. He may have been the first European to pen a record of the use of chestnuts in North America. Other writers of consequence documented the Indians’ use of chestnuts including Capt. John Smith in 1612,“both broath and bread for their chiefe men or at least their greatest feasts”; and Romans in 1775 who spoke of the Creeks having, “dry peaches and persimmons… chestnuts…”.
In all of Europe, especially Italy, chestnuts were ground into flour for centuries and the demand often exceeded the supply. “The flour is made into a soup or a dough, which may be mixed with cacas, sugar, rice, or potato flour…It forms one of the principal articles of diet of the poor mountaineers”. – Forest Leaves. Vol. 10. Aug. 1906.
In later years, the Italians who could afford wheat flour made bread using one part chestnut flour to two parts wheat flour and the resulting product was said to be most excellent. Immigrants to North America may have done the same, or like Native Americans, they might well have combined it with cornmeal to make bread.
Immigrants familiar with them from their homeland knew the chestnut could be prepared as a vegetable or ground into flour and used to make bread and other products. They did so in early times, however, by 1905 one author said chestnuts were a luxury for Americans. While he felt it wasn’t used nearly as much as it should be in America, the writer did note that during October and November the flour could be purchased in the U.S.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century foods made from chestnut flour included polenta, breakfast porridge, puddings, cakes, pies, fritters, pancakes or griddle cakes, stuffing, and the water from boiled chestnuts was felt beneficial for chest complaints. Chestnut polenta was made of the flour with water and salt and it was eaten with cream, butter, ham, &c. The Italians made cakes out of chestnut flour and water which were baked over a fire between layers of chestnut leaves. Those cakes were usually eaten with buttermilk cheese, Bologna sausages, and meat.
The native chestnuts grew, “throughout the eastern United States, and is found from southern Maine through Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and southward along the Alleghany Mountains to Alabama, and westward to Michigan and Indiana”. Their commonality tells us they were also known by Southeastern Indians and should be a part of Native American foodways presentations.
The chestnut tree blight eventually cast a dark shadow over the collection of native chestnuts, but the fate of the American chestnut is fodder for another post entirely.
The Native American chestnut tree attained immense proportions when growing in the open. A tree in Connecticut was documented about the turn of the 20th century at twenty-three feet circumference at a height of four feet above the ground, and eighty feet tall, and there were others even larger.
Early in the 20th century, John Parry complained that the U.S. used all it produced and each year turned to Southern Europe for a large quantity of nuts indicating they were once a presence larger than a few roasted nuts at Christmas time.
Shortages brought on by wars have necessitated substitutions for scarce ingredients throughout history, and chestnut flour was one of several the Europeans turned to during WWI. “The Italians are adding to scant war rations with chestnut bread. The chestnuts of Italy and Spain are much larger than those of America, and chestnut bread is a familiar article of diet in both lands.”
Meanwhile, in America, the Bureau of Chemistry was conducting experiments on various items which might be used here to replace or extend wheat flour including potato, rice, chestnut, dried banana, bran, soy beans, white beans, millet, Kafir, milo, dasheen, cottonseed flour, oatmeal, cassava, buckwheat, rye, corn gluten, Kaoliang, and peas. Any of these items might serve well today.
Anyone interested in replacing wheat flour, in whole or in part, might consider chestnut flour but if cost is a factor, making it at home might be preferable to purchasing it as it runs about $10. per pound. For many of us, the cost is increased due to having to add shipping charges. The following recipes use chestnuts in a variety of ways.
TO MAKE CHESTNUT FLOUR
Either cut a slit in the chestnuts or cut them in half. Place them on a pan and put into the oven to roast until the shells will peel away easily (about 40-45 minutes). Remove the shells and the papery covering (pellicle) and let them cool. Freeze the nuts for about 45 minutes. Grind the frozen chestnuts until you reach a meal-like consistency. Store the flour in an airtight container, preferably in the freezer. To make the flour in a historic setting, or in the absence of a power source, a mortar and pestle should work well.
Make a sponge as for white bread, using good white flour. When perfectly light, add a little salt and enough of chestnut flour to knead well. After kneading it thoroughly, form into loaves, put into well-oiled tins, and let it rise until twice its first size, and bake in a moderate oven for one hour.
Take 2 cups of chestnut flour, 5 eggs, 1 scant cup of sugar, 2 tablespoonfuls of water, and a pinch of salt. To make the chestnut flour, first dry the nuts before shelling, or toast them slightly with the shells on. By doing this the skins will be loosened and easily rubbed off without blanching; then grind them in a family grist-mill or a coffee-mill to a fine flour, or they may be ground through the nut-butter mill.
When all material and cake tin is ready and the oven hot, separate the eggs, and beat the yolks to a thick cream with the sugar. Then beat the whites until they are stiff and crumbly, adding the water and salt after it begins to get foamy but before it is stiff. Then pour in the yolk mixture, and fold it carefully in, and lastly fold in the 2 cups of chestnut flour. Bake like other cakes.
Shell and blanch a pint of Italian chestnuts…and cook in boiling milk until tender. Rub the nuts through a colander, add salt and sufficient milk and cream to make a soup of the proper consistency, reheat, and serve.
Beat three eggs, their whites and yolks separately, add three quarters of a pint of sweet milk and a tablespoon of melted butter, sift in one cup of chestnut flour with two teaspoons of baking powder. Beat the batter smooth, then add enough chestnut flour to bring the batter to a proper consistency, add also a pinch of salt and half fill warm buttered muffin pans. Bake about twenty minutes. (Note: These muffins aren’t going to rise as they would with wheat flour. Readers may want to use half chestnut and half wheat or other flour.)
The next two recipes are from “Mazdaznan Encyclopaedia of Dietetics and Home Cook Book: Cooked and Uncooked”. They are unusual by today’s standards but several scenarios come to mind in which the product might prove beneficial.
Grind coarse one-half cupful blanched almonds, one tablespoonful walnuts, two tablespoonfuls pine nuts. Add one half cupful flaked oats (or wheat, barley, rice, corn, peas, beans, or lentils). Mix it all thoroughly and moisten with milk, water or fruit juices. Spread in a thin layer. Sprinkle the top with St. John’s bread flour or chestnut flour and expose to the heat of the sunlight for at least one hour.
One pound finely-ground chestnuts, two tablespoonfuls ground peanuts, one pound flaked rice moistened with milk to make into loaves. Set out in the sun for an hour. Cut into slices and serve with fruit or vegetables.
CHESTNUT CAKE – Haskell (1861)
One pound and a half of boiled chestnuts mashed and sifted. One-fourth of a pound of loaf-sugar, the yolks of eight eggs beat light. Beat the ingredients well together, and spice to suit the taste. Line a shallow pudding-plate with puff paste; pour in the mixture. The Germans call this cake, but it is more like a pie or pudding.
STEAMED CHESTNUT PUDDING.
1 pound of chestnut pulp
½ pint of cream
¼ pound of fresh butter
¼ pound of sugar
8 yolks of eggs
6 whites of eggs
Pinch of salt
Vanilla or almond flavoring
Boil 1 ¼ pounds of chestnuts in water one hour. Peel them, scrape off the furry outside; mash the kernels through a sieve, moistening with hot cream. Mix all the other ingredients with puree except the whites of eggs; the yolks having been well beaten before stirring in.
Whip the whites firm, and lightly mix them in without beating. Steam in buttered moulds about one hour. Serve as soon as done, with diluted fruit jelly made hot for sauce…
CHESTNUT PUDDING [Note: This recipe was included in several 18th century cookbooks including Hannah Glasse, and Richard Briggs. Adjust the nutmeg to taste, and the pudding can probably be made just as successfully with half the number of large eggs].
Put a dozen and a half of chestnuts into a skillet or saucepan of water; boil them a quarter of an hour; then blanch and peel them and beat them in a marble mortar, with a little orange-flower or rose-water and white wine, till they are a fine thin paste; them beat up twelve eggs, with half the whites, and mix them well; grate half a nutmeg, and a little salt; mix them with three pints of cream and half a pound of melted butter; sweeten it to your palate, and mix altogether. Lay a puff paste all over the dish, and pour in the mixture and bake it. When cream cannot be got, take three pints of milk; beat up the yolks of four eggs, and stir into the milk; set it over the fire, stirring it all the time, till it be scalding hot; then mix it instead of the cream.
BOMB COQUELIN (Something Different in Chestnut Pudding) [Note: the chestnuts can be mashed or put through a ricer. Place the mixture in a loaf pan before freezing if desired.]
2 lbs. chestnuts, 4 squares chocolate, ½ lb. butter or margarine, ½ lb. castor sugar
Keep a little butter and sugar to mix with chocolate when the latter is being melted. Boil and skin chestnuts and pass carefully through a hair sieve. Cream butter and sugar, mix well with chestnut puree. Grease ice tray and put mixture in freezing for not more than 2 hours. Turn out on serving dish and pour over it the melted chocolate and serve. This can be cut in slices like a cake.
SOURCES FOR CHESTNUT FLOUR: Barry Farm, amazon.com,
Bertini, Tullio Bruno. “Trapped in Tuscany and Liberated by the Buffalo Soldiers”. 1998. Boston.
“Commercial Relations of the United States with Foreign Countries”. Govt. Printing Office, Washington. 1879.
Parry, John. “Nuts for Profit”. New Jersey. 1897.
Jaffa, Myer. “Nuts and their Uses as Food”. Farmers’ Bulletin 332. U.S. Dept. Agriculture. 1908.
Lambert, Almeda. “Guide for Nut Cookery”. 1899.
Kellogg, Ella Ervilla. “Science in the Kitchen”. 1892.
Norton, Jeanette. “Mrs. Norton’s Cook-book. 1917.
Jameson, John Franklin, ed. “Narratives of New Netherland 1609-1664”. 1909 edition.
Waugh, F. W. “Iroquois Foods and Food Preparation”.
“Illustrated World”. Vol. 30. Sept. 1918.
“National Baker”. Vol. 20. April 1915.
Hanish, O. Z., Dr. “Mazdaznan Encyclopaedia of Dietetics and Home Cook Book: Cooked and Uncooked. 1905. Chicago.
Mooney, James. “The Sacred Formulas of the Cherokees”. Vol. 7. 1891. Washington. Government Printing Office.
“Congressional Serial Set”. Report Concerning Indians in North Carolina. Cherokee, N. C., September 6, 1902.
Armstrong, Samuel Chapman. “The Southern Workman”. Vol. 49. 1920.
Power, J. W. “Nineteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology. 1900. Washington. Government Printing Office.
Haskell, E. F., Mrs. “The Housekeeper’s Encyclopedia of Useful Information for the Housekeeper. 1861. NY.
Whitehead, Jessup. “The American Pastry Cook”. 1894. Chicago
Huish, Robert. “The Female’s Friend”. 1837. London.
Young, Lady. “Lady Young’s Cookery Book”. 1900.