When are chestnuts in season?

EAT CHESTNUTS

Our Top Three Chestnut Experiences:

  1. Nibbling still crunchy, pleasantly bitter chestnuts picked from the ground during a wander in the park.

  2. Following our nose to a stand on a London street (wet with rain and reflecting streetlamps like oil) and warming our fingers on a small (much smaller than last year) paper bag of roast chestnuts.

  3. Tucking into special, rarely made treats like Chestnut and Chocolate Cake (see recipes).

HISTORY

Chestnuts trees have grown across China and Japan since ancient times. The Greeks brought them to Europe from Asia Minor and later they spread across the continent with the Romans.

For many Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries chestnuts were an important staple food and Italians used them to make polenta before the introduction of maize from the New World.

BIOLOGY

Many varieties of chestnut tree exist, the common European chestnut being Castanea sativa. The trees take 20 years to fruit but remain productive for centuries.

TIPS

BUYING
After picking, chestnuts slowly dry out and shrivel. Choose nuts that are heavy for their size with shiny, smooth shells. Give a squeeze to check that the nut inside is plump and full.

STORING
Freshly picked chestnuts start off quite crisp and become more tender and chewy over the following days or weeks before deteriorating to a dry and floury texture. Storage at a cool temperature (e.g. the fridge) slows the ageing process.

PREPARING
Peeling chestnuts is a task to plan for when there’s something good on the radio; attempting the job when you’re in a hurry is likely to result in swearing and a long-standing hatred of a very fine nut.

Cut slits (or crosses) in the shells and part-cook the nuts either by roasting for 15 minutes or boiling for 20 minutes. The shells will now be fairly simple to break open. Removing the brown membrane on the nut is a fiddlier task (easier performed while the nuts are warm) and you will need to break open some nuts to get at the skin in the crevices.

Shelled and peeled, chestnuts can then be cooked according to recipe requirements (for mashing or pureeing they should have the consistency of cooked potatoes – test with a skewer).

MISCELLANY

Ham from pigs reared on a diet rich in chestnuts is highly valued in many areas of France, Spain, Italy and particularly Corsica (home to an annual chestnut festival in December).

In season mid-autumn: Chestnuts

Chestnuts are a versatile ingredient: they can be used in savoury and sweet dishes. While other nuts (eg. Brazil nuts, pecan and pistachios) are generally imported product, chestnuts are New Zealand-grown and plentiful for two months from mid-March to the end of May.

Buying

Choose glossy, plump firm nuts which indicate they have been freshly picked and chilled.

Chestnuts are seldom rock-hard unless straight off the tree. Discard chestnuts that look dull or aged since they are more likely to carry rotten fruit.

Find chestnuts at selected Countdown supermarkets and at organic retailers East West superstore, IE Produce, Ceres Fresh Market, Harvest Whole Foods, Huckleberry Farm and Village Organics. Chestnuts can also be found at farmers’ markets nationwide

Storing

After harvest, the starch in chestnuts converts to sugar. Left at room temperature chestnuts will noticeably sweeten after a few days and are best used within the week. Alternatively, by storing chestnuts in the fridge, the ripening process will slow down and they will last for up to three weeks.

Nutrition

Quite different to other nuts, chestnuts contain less than one per cent fat. Chestnuts contain fibre and are a good source of vitamin C.

Using

During preparation, it’s important to pierce chestnuts to prevent them exploding. Within a day of picking, chestnuts can be gently squeezed and are easily pierced, or cut an ‘X’ across the top using kitchen scissors, or with a sharp knife mark a horizontal slit over the rounded back of the nut.

To boil or steam chestnuts, after piercing the outer shell, boil nuts for 15-20 minutes or steam for 25-30 minutes. Peel the outer shell and remove the pellicle (inner skin) if the whole nut is desired. Otherwise, once cooked, cut the nuts in half and scoop out with a spoon.

To roast chestnuts, pierce the skin then roast nuts at 180°C for 20 minutes before serving. Chestnuts can also be roasted in the embers of a fire or in a heavy frying pan over a gentle heat. Remember: cut a slit in each end to prevent nuts from exploding.

  • Chestnuts enhance the flavours of vegetables such as mushrooms, kumara, onion celery and garlic.
  • The sweet chestnut flavour perfectly complements fruit such as apples, pears, raisins and cranberries, as well as chocolate and coffee.
  • Steam chestnuts, scoop out flesh and purée to make chestnut, mushroom and port pâté.
  • Chestnuts make an ideal barbecued pre-dinner snack. Simply roast chestnuts, peel, season to taste and eat hot.
  • Peel and add whole or chopped raw chestnuts to soups, casseroles and stuffing.

A century ago, you could get roasted chestnuts on nearly every street corner in San Francisco, New York and Boston. The giant trees were so prolific, people joked that squirrels could travel from Maine to Florida without touching the ground. But blight ravaged the East Coast trees in the 1940s, destroying nearly every chestnut. Now chestnuts have made a major comeback, thanks to the new strains of trees bred to withstand that disease, and California leads the nation in chestnut production. For the past several weeks, growers have been harvesting the new chestnut crop in orchards from Fresno to Chico, so this is the perfect time to find these old-school wonders ($5.99 to $7.99 per pound, depending on size) at farmers markets and grocery stores.

Look for nuts that are shiny and heavy for their size. Give them a shake: If they rattle at all, they’re old. Chestnuts have the lowest oil content of any nut, which means they go bad quickly. Fresh chestnuts, still in their shells, will keep for a week in a cool, dry place. To store them longer, place them in a plastic bag — perforated to allow air circulation — and refrigerate them for up to a month or tuck them in the freezer for up to four months. When you’re ready to roast them, drop them into a water-filled sink first. Discard any that float; it’s a sign of age and dehydration.

Michael Marks is the marketing manager for FreshPoint.

In the Bins

Quince
Local farms, Fresno
$1.79 to $1.99 each
Tips: Quince is an odd-looking fruit — and it’s not something you want to eat out of hand. However, quince makes wonderful, rosy-hued jelly and compote. Grab them when you see them. The season is short.
Strawberries
Watsonville, Santa Maria
$2.49 to $2.99 per basket
Tips: The fall strawberry harvest is just starting to arrive from new fields in Santa Maria and Oxnard, as well as Watsonville. Don’t wash the berries until just before you use them.
Broccoli
Salinas, Santa Maria
$1.99 to $2.29
per bunch
Tips: The broccoli harvest is moving south, from Salinas to Santa Maria, which means prices will be much higher than normal.

There are many factors to consider when determining the optimal method of chestnut harvest and practices vary from hand collection, to nut wizards and even mechanized harvesters for commercial growers. As trees of cultivated chestnut orchards begin to reach significant production levels, harvest efficiency and mechanization has become critical.

Because chestnuts are not physiologically mature until they are released from their enclosing bur (when they drop to the ground) is restricted to ground pick-up. Shaking will tend to bring down immature chestnuts, which result in quality and peeling issues. Gathering chestnuts from the ground obviously presents some challenges, namely how to collect the chestnuts but not the dirt and debris from the ground.

There are both obvious and unexpected inputs into the decision equation when working toward selection of harvesting equipment for chestnuts. Below is a list of considerations when selecting a harvesting method.

1) What is my orchard size, but more importantly, at the peak of harvest, how many pounds per hour (capacity) must I be able to harvest?

  • To maintain optimal nut quality, nuts must be harvested withing 48 hours of dropping and immediately placed in cold storage. Thus, at the peak of harvest you should be able to harvest half of your orchard every day. This also minimizes your loss to wildlife.
  • How many hours are available for harvest each day?

2) What is the grade in the orchard? Some machines do not operate safely or as effectively on slopes.

3) What is the final market for the chestnuts (mechanically harvested nuts will not be quite as pristine as hand harvested nuts, however, after storage time this difference is seen to lessen)?

4) Human ergonomics: Some methods require one to carry/drag a large flexible hose around the orchard and bend over slightly.

5) How is the orchard pruned? Lower branches will need to be eliminated if mechanical harvest is desirable.

6) VERY IMPORTANTLY, ground preparation and ground cover. Self propelled sweeping machines are most ideally suited for firm, flat, smooth, and debris free (no excess living or cut grass and no limb pieces) ground conditions.

7) Economics of mechanical harvest versus hand harvest ($0.30 to $0.50/lb) and labor availability for a given size orchard.

Harvest concepts and options

The following are modes or concepts of harvest. The most feasible or most appropriate method for any given operation is governed by the results of the considerations discussed above. The systems are generally listed in increasing order of complexity and cost.

1) Hand harvest (some pick-up tools/assists available such as Nut Wizard (www.nutwizard.com)). Limited by labor availability and ability to collect chestnuts in a timely fashion. Laborer must do in-field sorting/selection. Some sensitivity to ground cover.

2) Sweep (everything) in orchard with off-line secondary cleaning. Less expensive means of self-propelled harvest and relatively fast, but requires second process of separation/cleaning. Does remove debris from orchards so it is not run through harvester multiple times. Requires relatively smooth ground surface.

3) Vacuum (hose or otherwise), pick up everything, secondary cleaning. Somewhat restricted to smaller producers due to capacity of pick up and transport of nuts plus debris/burs.

4) Vacuum hose, all-area coverage, with on-board air and physical sieve sorting. Labor required to drag hose and vacuum most all material from under/around the tree. Debris is discarded. Can be PTO driven (trailer or 3-point hitch) or self powered units. Intermediate in cost.

5) Vacuum hose, following windrowing, with on-board sorting. Increases efficiency of pick up process and is more ergonomically friendly to laborers. Requires separate machines for windrowing and pick up.

6) Sweep/vacuum combination, self propelled, on-board cleaning/separation, bagging. One machine does all. Various sized/capacity machines to match to production. Requires good orchard management in pruning and ground surface preparation. Single operator or with bagging assistance labor.

7) Sweep/vacuum combination, self propelled, on-board cleaning/separation, with receiving trailer. Same as #6 above but chestnuts are collected into box trailer and only single operator is required.

Commercial machines

Most commercial chestnut harvesting machines have been developed in, and are sold in, Europe. The question remains whether these companies will open up sales to the U.S. either directly, or most likely through a distributor. The machines have been developed and refined over many years and have some unique and effective components and appear to operate well when the orchard is managed in consideration of the harvester. Below is a non exclusive list of some companies involved in chestnut harvesting machines. Most companies have a range of systems covering some of the concepts and options above.

  • FACMA (Italy): Self propelled sweep/vacuum units ranging in capacity from 500 – 1700 kg/hr. Trailered PTO powered hose vacuum units ranging in capacity from 200 -900 kg/hr. Windrowers.
  • Monchiero (Italy): Self propelled sweeping units and also PTO driven trailered hose vacuum units.
  • Chianchia (Italy): 3-point hitch mounted hose vacuum units and various small scale electric powered cleaning stations and accessories.
  • Jolly (Italy): 3-point hitch mounted mechanical sweeping and cleaning unit.

As noted, this is not an exclusive list. Additionally, the question might arise as to the potential to use harvesting machines from other nut commodities such as almonds or pecans, etc. In principle or concept some of these systems could be used, however, in those situations the nut is basically the largest object being picked up which tends to simplify the system. Limited understanding of these machines lead the author of this document to suggest modifications necessary to adapt such related crop harvesters and the inefficiencies that would remain would outweigh advantages of working with them as a system that already exists in the U.S.

Research and development

Michigan State University has been involved with looking at harvest opportunities for the growing Michigan chestnut industry. Some rough economic analysis has led to the suggestion that a void in harvesting equipment exists for “small” growers (2-8) acres who have no or minimal labor force (see figure 1), however, at this time not all commercially available systems have been observed. Our present observation is that growers with less than 2 acres can find enough local labor to conduct harvest and mechanization is likely not economically practical, while growers with greater than 8 acres should probably look at the likelihood that existing commercial systems, even though they are made in Europe, may likely be an economically feasible option. Additionally, it appears, at least for the time being, that a US manufactured system would have multiple advantages (availability, cost, repair, etc.)


Figure 1. Approximate harvest cost economics for hand versus machine harvest for $7000 machine and 3000 lb/acre production.

With this in mind, the MSU chestnut team has had conversation with the chestnut industry as to what they would currently like to see as priority in a newly/uniquely developed system. In other words should the system simply pick up everything for later cleaning; or should the system do “some” cleaning but doesn’t need to be perfect; or should the system harvest and conduct a clean sort? Clearly increased capability and capacity come at a cost. MSU has decided to attempt to maximize capability and minimize cost through development of a new concept which involves a single-stage combined vacuum and separation system involving simplicity and minimal mechanisms/components (see fig 2). Initial tests have shown the concept to have potential.


Figure 2. Single-stage chestnut harvester development prototype.

Positive aspects: Picks up and separates desirable and undesirable material; it is additionally very easy on the chestnuts. System is expected to be simple and small, possibly pulled by a small ATV or utility vehicle or mounted on a 3-point hitch.

Negative aspects: The concept/system incorporates the requirement of the need to use large vacuum hoses (as with many commercial systems).

Questions remaining: Can the components be better optimized? Does a short line manufacturer exist to move it to a commercially available system? What would be the cost of the system and can it be a feasible option?

It should be noted that some systems with similar capabilities as those being addressed by the new MSU concept, and that might have potential cost effectiveness, are commercially available from the European manufacturers with an approximate cost of purchase and delivery of around $13,000.

Additional research

MSU has acquired a FACMA self propelled chestnut harvester. The purpose of this acquisition is to conduct research on the capabilities of the machine and gain an understanding if the unit can function under existing or modified U.S. conditions. The unit was acquired such that it can be used in self propelled mode or as a simulated vacuum hose system so MSU and growers can conduct tests, demonstrations, and evaluations on efficiency, ground covers, and ergonomics. MSU is additionally conducting tests on nut quality between mechanically and hand harvested chestnuts.

Summary

Commercial harvester options exist and many questions related to economic feasibility, ergonomics, orchard size and production, and willingness to conduct proper orchard management for specific harvester types need to be considered before making a harvester purchase. MSU is positioned to help growers with these questions. Clearly with increased capability and capacity comes increased cost. MSU feels a void possibly exists in an ideal harvester for many of Michigan’s chestnut producers and is working on development of a potentially unique and cost effective system for small producers.

Disclaimer

Michigan State University does not endorse any manufacturer or type of system at this time. MSU is positioned to assist producers in understanding the operation of as well as the advantages and disadvantages of harvesting system types.

Harvesting Edible Chestnuts in Vancouver

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  • Sweet chestnuts – gathering, peeling, roasting and cooking

    Sweet chestnuts are a traditional forager’s treat, and are oddly under-used in the UK which means there is rarely any shortage of them for gathering from the wild. Make sure you have gloves with you to avoid the spines, and lay the nuts out in a single layer as soon as you get home to stop them going mouldy. Chestnuts should be used within a week, and can be baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved. Remember to cut a slit or cross in them to stop them exploding when they are cooked.

    Edible sweet chestnut (left) and poisonous horse chestnut (right)

    The delicious aroma of roasting chestnuts is a true winter delight, but this wild food – essentially free if you just go out and look for it – is not as popular in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. This is a pity because chestnuts are a versatile food with a long history, high in carbohydrates but low in protein and fat. Sweet chestnuts are easy to identify because they have lots of very prickly spikes on their outer shells, and look like clusters of little hellow hedgehogs. There are generally three or four nuts to a casing. In contrast, the slightly poisonous horse chestnut (the only thing you’re likely to confuse them with) is comparatively unspiky, and only has one or two nuts to a casing. They can look a bit similar out of their cases, but only the sweet chestnut has a little tuft of fur at the apex. Gather only plump, firm chestnuts – if they give when you squeeze them they are not worth your time. Nuts with neat little holes drilled through the shells should be left too, as this is a sign of weevil infestation.

    Chestnut trees are not usually planted as part of an edible garden, except by the truly far-sighted. If you think ahead in terms of decades, or are planting for your children, then they’re a really good investment. By ten years old a grafted tree can produce 10kg (22lb), but trees grown from seed can take thirty years or even longer to begin fruiting. They’re not for the faint-hearted though. Sweet chestnut trees are large and spreading, growing up to 30m (100ft) high with a spread of 15m (50ft). What’s more, you need at least two trees for pollination.

    Andy says… “Those nuts you’re gathering wouldn’t be there if someone else hadn’t taken the long view. Why not make a similar gift to the future and plant a tree today?”

    If you’re lucky enough to have a sweet chestnut tree within striking distance, they’re a forager’s dream. The nuts fall from the tree in late autumn, and you need to pick them up as soon as possible before they get waterlogged or swiped by squirrels. Wear gloves, as those spikes really hurt.

    Storing chestnuts

    Fresh chestnuts keep for a week at room temperature and will sweeten up if left in a single layer where the air can get at them. They’re at their sweetest after about three days at room temperature, but after this the nuts begin to go mealy and the skins get hard.

    To keep chestnuts for two or three weeks, leave them in their shells and store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator. To keep them for even longer, freeze them in their shells. The texture deteriorates, but they taste just fine. Alternatively you can candy them, puree them or store them in syrup, but drying chestnuts at home is difficult as they need a continuous flow of cool air.

    Preparing chestnuts

    Chestnuts are a lot of work to prepare, but here are a couple of methods that will give you better – and faster – results. First you need to pick over the nuts, discarding any with weevil holes. Then make a shallow X in the flat side of each nut with a sharp knife, aiming to go through the shell but not to cut into the meat beneath. Now the nuts are ready to cook, and there are four main methods, the easiest being boiling. But first, the secret to peeling them quickly: chestnuts are easier to peel when they are warm and damp. Whichever method you choose, wrap the cooked chestnuts in a damp tea towel to keep them warm while you peel the others. Remove the shell and pellicle (the bitter inner skin), and you’re good to go.

    Microwaving

    Microwaving chestnuts is certainly quick, but it’s really easy to burn the nuts, so beware. Slit the shells as described above, place the chestnuts in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate, and blast them on full power for two minutes (in a 850W oven). If you think they need a bit longer, work your way up 20 seconds at a time.

    Roasting

    Roasting chestnuts is the traditional way to cook them, and gives the best flavour. Slit the shells as described above, then put the nuts in a pan on the stovetop, under a grill, on a BBQ or (if you really want to be traditional) on a shovel in the embers of a fire. Roast the chestnuts until the shell splits open at the cut, or you see steam or hear them hissing. Don’t worry about the shell turning black in places, as you’ll be taking it off anyway.

    Baking chestnuts

    Oven-baking is a convenient way of doing large batches of nuts. Slit the shells as described above and bake the chestnuts on a tray at 200C until the shells split open at the cut, which should take around half an hour. It’s a good idea to shake the tray to turn the nuts every ten minutes or so.

    Peeling chestnuts the easy way – boiling chestnuts

    Boiling in water may be unglamorous but it is very simple, makes for the easiest peeling, and is probably the best way to process relatively small amounts of foraged nuts. If you need whole, unblemished chestnuts (say for candying), slit the shells as described above and drop them into a shallow pan full of simmering water. WEARING RUBBER GLOVES, a minute or two later take two or three out with a slotted spoon. The shell peels down from the top, and if the skin doesn’t come with it, it will soon follow with a rub from your gloved fingertip. Any skin caught in the folds can be tweaked out by a helper (non glove-wearing), or with a knife, or rubbed off gently with a toothbrush. If the nut cools down too much and the skin re-adheres, pop it back into the boiling water for 30 seconds. The nuts go floury if they’re cooked for too long, so about six nuts at a time in the boiling water is about right so you can do two or three batches of peeling. This is still labour intensive, but you get beautifully clean nuts, don’t waste so many, and don’t burn your fingers. If you don’t need whole nuts, there’s a much faster way to peel them which again uses boiling. Instead of cutting a cross into the nuts, chop them in half and boil them for two or three minutes. Then use a pair of pliers to squeeze the nut from the shell side, and you’ll find the nut just pops out of the shell with no fuss. If you use a pair of spring-opening pliers you can get really fast at this, and pop enough to make a batch of stuffing in less than five minutes.

    Hazelnuts article

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    Today I’m sharing everything I know about picking and roasting chestnuts. Foraging for food is such a wonderful activity to do with your children. It gets them outside in the fresh air, keeps them active (not always so easy when the autumn weather turns chilly) and really connects them with nature and with where our food comes from. Plus, its free – you can’t beat free food, straight from nature!

    In late summer and early autumn we love picking blackberries, but as autumn really kicks in we start our hunt for chestnuts. We’ve been lucky to live within easy walking distance of chestnut trees in the last two houses that we’ve lived in, so picking and roasting fresh chestnuts has become an essential part of our autumn every year.

    If you’re not sure how to identify sweet chestnut trees, this time of year is the perfect time to find them – look for trees with similar (but longer) leaves to the horse chestnut tree but with a carpet of prickly cases around them, they’re often found in both parks and growing in the streets.

    Are chestnuts the same as conkers?

    Not to be confused with horse chestnuts (conkers), which are mildly poisonous and definitely not edible for humans, sweet chestnuts are completely different. You can identify edible sweet chestnuts by their extremely prickly cases (they look like hairy little monsters or sea urchins!) and the distinctive tear-drop shape of the nut. There are usually 2 or 3 chestnuts to a case.

    When can you find and harvest chestnuts?

    Chestnuts are normally ready to harvest from mid to late October here in the UK. From personal experience, we usually start finding sweet chestnuts once the horse chestnuts have finished dropping their conkers, so we collect conkers for playing and crafting with first, then sweet chestnuts for eating later in the autumn. A ripe chestnut should be harvested from the floor around the tree rather than from the tree itself as they aren’t ripe until they drop. Look for shiny brown chestnuts that feel firm, the bigger the better. If the lower part of the chestnut is white or pale yellow, it’s not ripe yet so leave it for the squirrels, as I tell my boys!

    The freshest chestnuts can be found still in their prickly cases. If you haven’t come out armed with thick gardening gloves, try pulling them apart by standing on the case, one foot on each side until it splits and the chestnuts pop out. Be careful of all the prickly cases, they can hurt little (and big!) fingers.

    How long can you store chestnuts?

    Once you’ve harvested your sweet chestnuts, you can store them uncooked in the fridge for a couple of weeks, preferably in a bowl or tub. Don’t store them in a sealed plastic bag as they’ll go mouldy. We’ve found from personal experience that the quicker you roast them the better though, as they start drying out over time.

    Are chestnuts good for you?

    Chestnuts are lower in calories and fat than most other nuts. They’re actually classed as starchy food, like sweet potato or sweet corn. They’re full of minerals, nutrients and vitamins, particularly vitamin C, they’re an excellent source of fibre and are rich in folates too. They’re also naturally gluten free. Delicious AND good for you – win win!

    How to roast chestnuts

    We always roast our chestnuts, it’s easy to do and the chestnuts taste sweet and delicious cooked this way! Pick the biggest, shiniest chestnuts that are firm to touch for roasting.

    Start by pre-heating your oven to 200°C (Gas mark 6/400°F).

    With the tip of a sharp knife, cut a cross into the rounded side of each chestnut.

    Place the chestnuts, cross side up, in a small roasting tin or baking tray.

    Once the oven is ready, pop the tray of chestnuts inside and roast for around 30 minutes until the skins have burst open and you can see the pale flesh inside.

    Remove from the oven and leave until just cool enough to handle.

    Working quickly, peel the outer skin and pale inner skin from the chestnut and discard, eating just the sweet flesh inside.

    Enjoy!

    Notes: The chestnuts are easiest to peel when warm, so do serve straight away.

    I like to serve ours in paper bags with a bowl for the skins – everyone has a go at peeling their own, it’s all part of the fun!

    Do you forage for food with your children?

    Grace

    How to Roast Chestnuts

    How to roast chestnuts – everything you need to know to oven roast your own sweet chestnuts at home! Prep Time5 mins Cook Time30 mins Total Time35 mins Course: Snack Cuisine: British Servings: 4 people Author: Grace Hall

    Ingredients

    • 500 g sweet chestnuts

    Instructions

    • Start by pre-heating your oven to 200°C (Gas mark 6/400°F).
    • Pick the biggest, shiniest chestnuts that are firm to touch for roasting. With the tip of a sharp knife, cut a cross into the rounded side of each chestnut.
    • Place the chestnuts, cross side up, in a small roasting tin or baking tray.
    • Once the oven is ready, pop the tray of chestnuts inside and roast for around 30 minutes until the skins have burst open and you can see the pale flesh inside.
    • Remove from the oven and leave to cool until just cool enough to handle.
    • Working quickly, peel the outer skin and pale inner skin from the chestnut and discard, eating just the sweet flesh inside.

    Notes

    The chestnuts are easiest to peel when warm, so do serve straight away. I like to serve ours in paper bags with a bowl for the skins – everyone has a go at peeling their own, it’s all part of the fun!

    Peter Cundall: The benefits of chestnuts are many

    I PLANTED a single April Gold sweet chestnut tree about 25 years ago without realising that at least one other different variety was also needed for pollination.

    Fortunately, most chestnut trees are partially self-fertile so roughly one in every five of the prickly burrs contain a useful large nut.

    To be frank, I’m relieved because our tree has now grown to a height and spread of about 10m.

    Each autumn it is completely covered with thousands of swelling burrs and we would never be able to keep up with the enormous supply of chestnuts.

    That’s because, unlike other nuts, sweet chestnuts contain no oil so cannot be stored for long. They have to be used fairly quickly before they start to deteriorate.

    I’m also relieved we only have a rather small harvest (about three bucketsful), because harvesting can be a prickly, hazardous business.

    The hundreds of spines protecting each burr encasing the big brown nuts are viciously sharp.

    Even the stoutest of leather gloves can be penetrated by these deadly spines while trying to prise open recalcitrant burrs in order to release nuts.

    Most burrs fall to the ground fairly quickly over a few days. Once they hit the ground and begin to dry a little, most split open naturally, allowing the glistening, fat nuts to fall out.

    Under our solitary but utterly beautiful tree, layers of empty burrs remain ankle deep for many weeks, totally covering the ground beneath and around the tree.

    Far too many barrow loads for me to rake up and cart away.

    Sweet chestnut trees are suitable only for big gardens, although they can withstand heavy pruning to help restrict excessive growth.

    They are extraordinarily long-lived, thrive in well drained, acidic soil, but detest lime or alkaline conditions.

    They also enjoy cold, frosty winters, as an essential annual chilling during dormancy ensures better yields.

    The trees are only distantly related to the mainly ornamental Horse chestnut, which carries similar but slightly toxic fruit.

    Sweet chestnut trees flower during summer carrying enormous numbers of 20cm-long, rather smelly male catkins and shorter clusters of females. They are wind-pollinated.

    If nuts are to be used to propagate more trees, they must be sown immediately after they fall as their viability is extremely short.

    The biggest, fattest nuts are best planted in containers of moist, high-quality potting soil, preferably enriched with acidic compost made from fallen leaves — never with mushroom compost.

    Roots are formed almost immediately, although the first shoots and leaves do not appear until spring.

    Most seedling chestnut trees take up to seven years before starting to carry the first crops — the size and quality of the nuts can also vary.

    Many named varieties are available, usually grafted on to chestnut seedlings or even oak. These come into production more rapidly and the quality is usually far higher than chance seedlings.

    Some of the most reliable for cool and temperate Australian conditions include Emerald Gem, a big, semi-weeping tree carrying very heavy crops; April Gold, which produces large, dark brown, meaty nuts; George Sand, which bears extra-large nuts, just one to each burr; and Flemings Prolific, a particularly reliable variety producing outstanding, extra-sweet nuts.

    All sweet chestnuts need to be stored for a few days to dry and soften a little. Fresh, hard nuts are too astringent to eat at first. Cooking markedly increases the sugar content so they taste a little like roasted sweet potatoes or Oxalis tuberosa (Oca) tubers.

    They can also be used to make a flour which is free of fat, gluten and protein but a rich source of carbohydrates and vitamin C.

    I also use the cooked, pulverised nuts as a tasty soup thickener and as an additive to pumpkin pie and other puddings.

    The most popular method of eating sweet chestnuts is to roast kernels after making a cut in each hard hull.

    When ready, the hulls split for easy peeling so those delicious, creamy-white kernels can be enjoyed, hot and well-salted. Such luxury.

    ’Tis the Season for Chestnuts

    Trial by fire, that’s how I like to learn. Or at least that’s how it seems I end up learning most things—from my mistakes. It’s because I’m just too bloody stubborn and impulsive to read instructions. And so that’s how I discovered the most important thing you’ll ever need to know about roasting chestnuts: a pan of improperly prepared chestnuts will turn a once peaceful oven into a cluster bomb.

    Freshly roasted chestnuts. What could be so hard? Right? Crank the oven, pop ’em in, and wait for the kitchen to fill with the magic of the season.

    Oh, the kitchen filled up all right. First with the muffled sound of explosions, then with the sort of language you’d expect to find on a loading dock full of cranky stevedores.

    I’m curious and tend to jump into things, so naturally I immediately opened the oven door and stuck my head in to see what all the fuss was about. My soft, non-helmetted, un-goggled head.

    More stevedore language.

    I don’t know why I thought the right thing to do was to withdraw the pan of frighteningly swollen nuts from the safe—albeit hot—confines of the oven, but that’s exactly what I did.

    I don’t know why I thought the right thing to do was to withdraw the pan of frighteningly swollen nuts from the safe—albeit hot—confines of the oven, but that’s exactly what I did. They spluttered and sizzled, some rocking under their own steam, mere seconds away from launching with the destructive power of tiny scud missiles. Then just as I set the pan down, one took flight, followed closely by another and another, depositing shell shrapnel and mushy chestnut meat on the ceiling, walls, and floor.

    I shoved them back into the oven, where they proceeded to rumble and pop until the gory aftermath was baked onto the enamel surface.

    Perplexed, shocked, and a tad humiliated, I consulted Professor Google, bought more nuts, and tried again. This time it was more Christmassy, less Christmas Day massacre.

    While I was down the rabbit hole of the internet I learned about the American chestnut’s history. It’s a little sad and all too common, but there is a ray of hope.

    Up until the early 1900s, the American chestnut tree (Castanea dentata) blanketed forest floors from southern Canada down through the American Deep South with tasty and nutritious nuts coveted by people, livestock, and woodland creatures alike. The rot-resistant wood of this towering giant was also highly prized, but, alas, a fungal infection known as chestnut blight brought the trees to near extinction. Thankfully, growers and The American Chestnut Foundation (TACF), along with other appreciation societies in the United States and Canada, are working to bring this magnificent tree back, stronger than before, by developing a fungus-resistant cultivar. Meanwhile, TACF suggests that it’s worthwhile to plant American chestnut trees if you have access to them—even though they will be prone to blight—in order to keep the plant alive and producing seeds while research continues. Growers in North America are working on blight-resistant Chinese-American crosses; in Europe, where the European chestnut is also under threat from blight, growers are working on a Japanese-European cross.

    The European chestnut (Castanea sativa) is the cultivated cousin used to produce those roasted-on-an-open-fire goodies. These chestnuts are also sold boiled and peeled, candied, or ground up into a flour or paste. In France and Italy, candied chestnuts preserved in sugar syrup are called marron glacé. But don’t let the fancy European side of the family make you think that its North American kin is somehow inferior. The American chestnut is just as tasty and versatile, if much harder to find. I use either variety whenever I’m looking for a meatless meaty texture and richness.

    Do it for the kids and grandkids, for future generations. Do it for the great American chestnut.

    If you want to help with the American chestnut recovery project, plant a couple trees. You may not live long enough to see it blanket your garden in nuts, but do it for the kids and grandkids, for future generations. Do it for the great American chestnut. Remember, you’ll need more than one tree, as they can’t self-pollinate. Take a walk around your neighbourhood before you splash out on the price of two, though; you just might have one close enough—within the same block—to benefit yours.

    When you’re scouting, don’t confuse the American chestnut with the horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which is native to Eastern Europe and widely planted here, especially in urban areas. Though the flowers are very pretty and smell lovely, and they do produce nuts, the nutmeat is not edible. Still, they make for a rousing game of conkers, squirrels like ’em, and in traditional Chinese medicine they’re a cure for, ahem, hemorrhoids.

    To get up close and personal with American chestnuts in Southern Ontario, visit Grimo Nut Nursery in Niagara-on-the-Lake. To buy a bag of dried American chestnuts, visit Forbes Wild Foods. Jewels Under the Kilt sells American chestnuts that are grown on a neighbouring farm; contact them for availability. Between you and me, when time is of the essence and quantity is called for, I’m perfectly happy buying pre-roasted European chestnuts found in well-stocked grocery stores. I often eat them right out of the pouch: 2 for me, 10 for the pot. For that comforting holiday experience, however, try roasting them whole, if only once (recipe follows).

    How to Cook Chestnuts

    Boiled Chestnuts

    Chestnuts must be cooked—they’re bitter and unpleasant raw—but if my story of roasting chestnuts scares you as much as pressure cooking scares me, then you can always simply boil whole chestnuts in a big pot of water over high heat for 30 to 35 minutes, until the meat inside the shell is soft and sweet. Drain and set aside until cool enough to handle. Using a paring knife, peel off the shell or simply cut each nut in half and dig out the meat.

    Roasted Chestnuts

    Roasted chestnuts have a natural sweetness that is delightful. Simply peel and nibble, perhaps with a sip of port. A pile of warm roasted chestnuts will take a cheese or charcuterie platter to the next level. Of course, they’re also a lovely addition to holiday stuffing. Or try them sautéed with green beans and a little (okay, a lot) of butter. A cream sauce with chestnuts, mushrooms, and marsala is absolutely decadent poured over fish, meat, poultry or a roasted head of cauliflower.

    1. Inspect each nut and give it a little shake. It should be silent, which means it’s nice and fat inside, not dried out. If there are any cracks or holes, a worm has gotten to the yummy nutmeat ahead of you. Ditch it! Likewise, toss any mouldy ones.
    2. Wash chestnuts in cold water. Letting them soak for a bit before draining will soften the shell, which helps with the next step. (If you’re roasting your chestnuts over an open flame, damp nuts char more slowly.)
    3. Score the shell of each chestnut: Carefully hold the nut against a board and, using a sharp paring knife, cut a deep X all the way through the shell.
    4. Transfer the prepared chestnuts to a large baking sheet. Roast in a hot oven (400°F/200°C) until the X you cut in each is peeling back to reveal the yummy, sweet nutmeat, about 30 minutes. You can also cook them on a hot grill (barbecue), over a campfire, or in the fireplace. For the campfire or fireplace experience, you’ll need a wire camping popcorn popper or veggie roasting basket to keep them all contained. Score as you might, they’re still liable to leap—screaming hot—into the air every now and then. Give the pan or basket a shake once in a while to ensure even roasting.

    Chestnuts

    One of the most widely grown nuts, chestnuts are found on all three continents. Grown throughout New Zealand, most productive chestnut orchards in the country are in Auckland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. There’s something delightfully nostalgic about roasting chestnuts (peeling them is another matter) but if you want to give it a go, there’s little time to waste. Chestnut season in New Zealand is short: it runs from mid March until May.

    Available from some supermarkets and greengrocers, they can be purchased from orchards and at farmers markets throughout the season, from mid March until early May. Free-flow frozen chestnuts can be bought from Asian food stores and sweetened chestnut purees, for baking and desserts, can be found at specialty stores. Chestnuts are gluten free and some growers also process the nuts into flour for baking. When buying chestnut flour from a store, be sure to check that it is not water chestnut flour. Water chestnuts are not related.

    Highly perishable chestnuts should be stored in the fridge unless being used soon after harvesting. They are high in vitamin C, folate, potassium and protein but are low in calories.

    Chestnuts should be cooked before being consumed. They can be microwaved, boiled or roasted but unless you want a violent explosion, you do need to pierce the shell first. Simply cut an X into the flat side of the shell before cooking. Boiling them whole in water will take about 30 minutes. Cut them in half when they are cool enough to handle and scoop out the flesh. To roast them, cut your X, soak the chestnuts in a bowl of water for 15 minutes and then, X-side up, roast in a 200C oven for 15 minutes. Peel and enjoy! When buying, look for plump nuts and shiny shells without any bruising. Edible chestnuts are not the same thing as inedible horse chestnuts. The edible ones have a pointed top, the horse chestnut has a flattened smooth top.

    Highly perishable, chestnuts are 50 per cent water. Unless they are to be eaten soon after harvest, they should be refrigerated or frozen to prevent them drying out. They are high in vitamin C and potassium and contain protein but no fat or oil. Chestnuts grow well in New Zealand and we are not plagued with diseases common overseas. That’s good news for all of us: sprays are not needed.

    You may also be able to buy local chestnut processed products but these are made only on a small scale, often by individual growers (for details visit the NZ Chestnut Council on nzcc.org.nz). Country Treats in Levin sells its own freeze-dried crumbs and flour. It’s great for breads, baking, in gravies and soups. Visit country-treats.co.nz. Elsewhere, you can buy frozen chestnuts from Asian food stores and imported European purees from specialty stores.

    In New Zealand we grow a different variety of chestnut to that grown in Europe. So while the flavour and texture is the same, our nuts are trickier to peel. The Chestnut Council comes to the rescue, selling Japanese chestnut peelers that take the angst out of the job. (Pictured above: $50 for plastic model, $60 with replacement blades.)

    When buying, look for plump nuts and shiny shells without any bruising. Be aware, too, that edible chestnuts are not the same thing as inedible horse chestnuts. The edible ones have a pointed top, the horse chestnut has a flattened smooth top.

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