Chestnuts are one of several types of hard mast that have been used as food for pigs for centuries in parts of Europe. The tradition followed European settlers to North America.
The most famous chestnut-fed pigs are those raised around the town of Parma, in Italy. Parma is famous for two of Europe’s great delicacies: its parmesan (parmigiano) cheese and its wonderful prosciutto. Prosciutto di parma is salt-cured pork made from pigs raised on a combination of whey from Parma’s great cheese factories and chestnuts and grain from the surrounding countryside. Parma prosciutto is widely considered to be the best in the world.
Lardo di Arnad, a lesser known Italian delicacy, is also made from chestnut-fed pigs.
When European settlers came to America, they discovered a vast forest a waiting them. One of the dominant trees of the Eastern woodlands was the American Chestnut (Castanea dentata), which made up as many as one fourth of all trees in some regions of the Eastern United States. Whole industries revolved around the magnificent trees, which produced excellent timber in addition to delicious nuts. The trees were such prolific nut producers that after nuts had been gathered and shipped out for human consumption in towns and cities up and down the Eastern seaboard, there was usually plenty left over for the pigs, and chestnut-fed pork was considered to be the sweetest and best pork by early American colonists. Virginia hams were traditionally raised on a combination of peanuts and chestnuts.
Unfortunately, the great American Chestnut was nearly wiped out by a chestnut blight accidentally imported to New York on some infected Asian chestnuts, and between 1900 and 1950, an estimated 4 billion trees died.
Like the trees that once fed them, however, chestnut-fed pigs are now making a comeback as consumers seek a tastier, healthier, and more humane pork for their tables. Chestnut-fed pork, raised on naturalized European or Asian chestnuts, or Asian-American hybrids, has many of the same health benefits as better-known acorn-finished pork, another European tradition imported to the New World. Though fattier than modern commercial raised hogs, acorn and chestnut fed pigs have extremely high levels of unsaturated fat, including heart healthy oleic acid. The meat also contains higher levels of many important vitamins and minerals.
Chestnut-fed pork is also typically raised under more humane circumstances than modern commercially raised pork, and there is evidence to suggest that managed grazing by pigs can actually improve hardwood stands in woodlots and forests.