Seriously Italian: Chestnut Honey
"Dark and spicy, with touches of smoke and leather, chestnut honey is complex, mysterious, and nuanced."
Autumn in Italy means chestnuts are everywhere, and I do mean everywhere. Chestnut trees observe no regional boundaries in Italy, and at this time of year, outdoor markets are piled high with the local crop and the smell of roasted chestnuts fills the air. And where chestnut trees abound, so does chestnut honey.
The gift of chestnut honey arrives a bit earlier than the chestnuts themselves; mid to late summer is the time for chestnut honey to be harvested. But the chill of autumn is always the time that I crave chestnut honey, perhaps because it is the perfect partner for the deeper flavors of fall cooking.
How Chestnut Honey Gets Its Flavors
Dark and spicy, with touches of smoke and leather, chestnut honey is complex, mysterious, and nuanced. I've sampled chestnut honey from almost all of Italy's regions, and no two of them have ever tasted alike. They vary wildly in intensity of color and flavor due to a number of factors, including the type of chestnut tree and its natural microclimate, the methods by which the bees are moved among the chestnut blossoms, and how or if the honey is refined after it has been collected. In general, the darker the color, the richer the flavor—super dark varieties are even slightly bitter and almost savory. The weather is an influence too—a drier summer makes for a more potent honey, as the bees are less likely to be distracted by an abundance of other flowers. More time gathering nectar solely from chestnut blossoms concentrates the final flavor of the honey.
Chestnut honey is more than just a flavor player on the scene. Like other forest honeys such as spruce, pine or fir, chestnut honey has more antioxidants and greater anti-inflammatory properties than paler varieties. But even if it wasn't so virtuous, I would still call chestnut honey my favorite. Because it is so varied, every jar tells a story about the place it came from and the beekeeper that harvested it. Wherever I travel in Italy, I make sure to pick up a jar of the local chestnut honey; it always helps me tell my own stories, too.
Where to Buy
Like so many other Italian products I tell you about, chestnut honey is more widely available now than ever before. There are numerous internet and mail order sources, as well as specialty shops and grocers that are stocking it. Look for brands by Il Forteto, and Rustichella D'Abruzzo.
My personal favorite is the honey of Tuscan beekeeper Franca Franzoni (pictured at the top). Her bees make chestnut honey with just enough of the leather-and-smoke wallop, mixed with more delicate floral notes for a complex, layering of flavors.
How to Use
Chestnut honey is not for the timid palate, no doubt. But over the years I have found endless ways to present it in the most user-friendly way possible. I've baked cookies, cakes and tarts with chestnut honey, and used it to make a deeply flavored ice cream—it is especially good as an accent flavoring for hazelnut gelato. I use it to marinade and glaze roasts, game birds and root vegetables, and dollop it into countless cups of black tea with lots of milk. I'm also fond of the very Tuscan way to enjoy it: drizzled over a wedge of Pecorino Toscano with some fresh pears. Adding chestnut honey to any dish made with chestnut flour is a no-brainer—heaven is a hot chestnut flour crepe stuffed with ricotta and plenty of chestnut honey over top.
If you are drawn to powerful flavors, try a sandwich of rustic walnut bread and spicy Mountain Gorgonzola, slathered with chestnut honey and some peppery baby arugula. But if you're a newbie, start with something simple: For the very best breakfast ever, spread a thick slice of toasted semolina bread with plenty of sweet butter and a generous slick of chestnut honey. There may be no going back after that.
About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.