Those of us watching Hannibal know that when Hannibal feeds someone chestnuts, it’s a warning sign. Supposedly a diet of chestnuts flavors meat. Let’s look at several studies on the subject (done with pigs, not humans) and try to determine if that’s true.
Many people swear by nut-fed meat. Squirrel hunters believe that squirrel meat is made better by the high-nut diet of the squirrels. Prosciutto from Parma, Italy got famous because the pigs were first fed on the whey of the cheese made in the area, and then in the fall, towards slaughtering time, were turned out into the forests to root around for themselves. What they found were lots and lots of chestnuts. Chestnut-finished pork, made from pigs that spend the last few months of their lives on a high-chestnut diet, is well-regarded.
You can’t argue with taste, but what actual difference do chestnuts make? Researchers have looked into the question. The process of research is usually the same—select some pigs, divide them into groups with different diets, slaughter them when they make a certain weight (usually from 130 to 150 kilograms), and cure the meat identically. One study looked at indoor-raised pigs fed commercial feed their whole lives, chestnuts for one month before they were slaughtered, or chestnuts for three months before they were slaughtered. Another study took a look at pigs that were finished on pig feed, mixed pig feed and chestnut, and pure chestnut diets. A third study compared “cured lard” from pigs who were either raised indoors on commercial feed, raised in free range conditions on acorns, and raised in free range conditions on chestnuts.
When it came to pork nutrition, all three studies endorsed the nut-raised pork. Commercial fed pork was consistently higher in saturated fats. Nut-fed meat was higher in monounsaturated fats (often abbreviated MUFA). Chestnut-fed pork had more polyunsaturated fat (PUFA) than acorn-fed or commercial-fed pork. On the other hand, it also had more alpha and gamma tocopherol, which are both vitamin E compounds that are easily absorbed in humans.
Now what about the taste? Only one study is inarguably in favor of chestnut-finished pork. A gas-chromatography analysis of commercial, mixed commercial feed and chestnut, and chestnut-finished pork showed that chestnut finished pork had more volatile compounds than the other two. Chestnut-finished pigs had 62 volatile compounds, while mixed had 58, and commercial-fed a mere 54.
Other studies weren’t as clear-cut. What of the fact that the meat from pigs fed from chestnuts for only one month, as opposed to three, had the lowest pH? What about the fact that the cured lard made from free range acorn-and-chestnut-fed pigs was yellowish, as compared to pink commercial-fed lard. Chestnut-fed was also oilier than commercial-fed. We could say that it was “more golden” and “more juicy.” Taste is subjective. And besides, of the pigs that were kept indoors and fed either commercial or chestnut meal, the chestnut-fed pigs had stronger-colored meat. So while nut-fed pork may be either yellow or golden according to your taste, it’s at least not insipid and pale.
Only one test concluded that an aspect of chestnut-fed pigs, the ones that had been fed chestnuts for three whole months, was definitely inferior. It seems that they lost more liquid and more overall volume when being cooked than the other pigs did.
So kill them quickly, use fresh meat, and cook them lightly—right, Doctor?