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As the vegetable garden winds to an end I turn my harvest chores to the figs, persimmons and Chinese chestnuts. Our nut grove is now a sheep pasture which is perfect for them because they have pasture and shade from all sorts of nut trees. As it turns out it looks like my ewes and I share a favorite in the Chinese chestnut. After they eat their daily grain ration they snack on chestnuts that have fallen to the ground.
I first learned to enjoy roasted chestnuts when I lived in France as a college exchange student. On cold winter days my friends and I would buy bags of freshly roasted chestnuts from street vendors before we would go to the movies. There was no popcorn only the sweet, warm nuts that would easily pop out of their shells.
In the first half of the 20th century the American chestnut tree, Castanea dentata, was devastated by a fungus that is now referred to as chestnut blight. By 1950 nearly all of the American Chestnuts in the eastern part of the United States were dead, totaling about 3.5 million trees. The American chestnut, valued for its nuts and its straight rot-resistant timber is a rare sight in America today. As a result, most Americans have probably never even seen a chestnut tree and if they have it may seem like some exotic species.
There is no major commercial chestnut industry in America, however, the Chinese chestnut proves to be a good alternative for nut production because it is blight resistant and produces a reliable harvest of tasty nuts. Ironically, it is the Chinese chestnut that introduced the chestnut blight in the early 1900’s that devastated its American cousin. And, it is the Chinese chestnut that is being crossbred and back-bred with the American chestnut to introduce blight resistant genes into the American species. Over the last decade we have seen the reintroduction of blight resistant American chestnuts with ongoing research, breeding and planting efforts. Join in on the planting if you can!
The Chinese chestnut, or Castanea molissima, is best used in an orchard or grove setting because the late spring blooms have somewhat of a rancid smell, not something you want around your patio. The tree reaches a maximum size of 30-50 feet and has a more multi-stemmed spreading habit. The attractive foliage is long, narrow and pointed, very reminiscent of the American chestnut.
Chestnuts prefer well-drained, deep acid soil in a full-sun location. You can expect your first nut harvest after 5 years and a consistent reliable harvest after 10 years. Showtime begins in mid-September through mid-October because this is when the nuts begin to ripen and fall from the tree.
From personal experience, I think the chestnut is the easiest of nuts to harvest, cure and process. Wait for the spiny hulls to open up naturally and expel the nuts inside. I visit the tree daily to collect the fallen nuts. Wear thick gloves in case you have to handle any spiny hulls they are very, very sharp. I have been told that they can easily puncture a car tire and I believe it!
If you want to roast your chestnuts straight away you will need to cure them in a well-ventilated space, out of direct sunlight, for about 4 days. Chestnuts are high in starch and water (low in fat for a nut) and the nut needs a couple of days for the starches to convert to sugar. If you are going to put the nuts in cold storage you can skip the curing process because the starch to sugar conversion will take place over a longer period of time if stored in a zip lock baggy in the refrigerator.
Roasting over a fire in a metal roasting basket (or on the grill) is definitely the best way to prepare chestnuts, but you can also use the oven. Carefully score all but one nut with a cross on the flat side of the nut; pre-heat the oven to about 450, put the chestnuts on a cookie sheet and bake until the un-scored nut pops open. This is the best way to insure that you do not over-cook them. I freeze the roasted chestnuts for use all winter long.