We started the year learning about macadamias in New Zealand, so it’s only fitting that we should close it out harvesting chestnuts in Oregon. Prior to marrying an Englishman, I had never eaten a fresh chestnut – only candied, at culinary school in France – but they’ve become part of our fall traditions, as they were for him in childhood. And now that I’ve harvested them myself, I truly have a newfound appreciation for their exorbitant price. These things are little monsters.
The trees in the grove we harvested are between fifteen and twenty years old.
Chestnut trees are grown across much of the world; chestnuts themselves are important food crops in Asia and Europe. Chestnuts were also hugely valuable to native Americans and early settlers; the fruit is primarily carbohydrates, has more starch by weight than potatoes and contains enough vitamin C to prevent scurvy. In the early 1900s, however, the Bronx Zoo imported Asian chestnut trees for their botanical collection and inadvertently introduced chestnut blight to North America. Within forty years, the blight wiped out nearly every single one of the forty billion chestnut trees in America, with only a few small isolated stands now remaining across the country.
Usually you’ll find three chestnuts in the burr, but it depends on the species.
The actual chestnuts are contained in a burr, or hull, which is exactly like a tiny, angry porcupine. When the chestnuts are ripe, the chocolate-colored burrs fall to the ground; unlike other fruits or nuts, chestnuts are never harvested directly from the tree.
Ripe burrs split open, as on the left.
The burrs split open on their own, further indicating ripeness; this is primarily due to soil humidity, as chestnut trees prefer more humid climates. Sometimes unripe (green) burrs will also fall, and if they haven’t opened they should be left to ripen further.
Dry leaves and empty burrs after harvesting.
Things to know when harvesting chestnuts: you’ll need gloves. Kevlar gloves, to be precise, and yes, that is the material used for bulletproof vests. These things look relatively harmless but are truly vicious, and good gloves are mandatory. And it will take you ages to harvest these; the little burrs love to hide in the huge piles of dry leaves that have also fallen from the tree. They’re like adorable, spiky landmines, and now I know personally why they’re criminally expensive: the pain level is extraordinarily high. (I’m almost certain they were used as extras in this film.)
Looks harmless. Isn’t.
These edible chestnuts aren’t to be confused with horse chestnuts, which are mildly toxic to humans, or water chestnuts, which are grown aquatically and used in Asian cuisine. Attempts have been made since the 1930s to hybridize the American and Asian chestnut trees, in order to create a native species resistant to blight, but it hasn’t as yet been hugely successful. (On a related note, we’re about to suffer another major loss of trees, as the emerald ash borer – also imported from Asia, on shipping pallets this time – continues its trail of destruction across America. Colorado alone is projected to lose more than two million trees.)
It took forever to harvest a three-gallon bucket!
Chestnuts are used in savory and sweet preparations all over France and Italy; as with cranberries, they’re commonly seen in holiday recipes because their harvest time coincides perfectly. And in wintertime in cities like London or New York or Paris, you’ll often find street vendors roasting chestnuts over repurposed fifty-gallon oil drums.
To roast fresh chestnuts at home, carefully cut an ‘X’ into the flat side of each nut. Use sturdy kitchen shears to do this and be very, very careful; the nuts are slippery and unwieldy. Place on a baking sheet and broil until you hear the first explosion, about ten minutes depending on the quantity and your broiler temperature; be patient and wait until the second explosion, which indicates that all of them should be cooked through. Open the oven carefully and quickly lay a kitchen towel over the entire tray as more explosions are likely to follow. Let cool until you can safely handle them, then peel and dip each nut into coarse salt and enjoy. (Sorry about your oven; you’ll probably need to clean up the shrapnel once it’s cooled down. And a pro tip: it’s not a great idea to roast chestnuts in someone else’s oven, unless you’re also willing to clean it.)
Although chestnuts seem to thwart you at every turn, the reward is well worth the potential injury. Roasted chestnuts pair perfectly with a wee snifter of bourbon and are even better if enjoyed in front of a roaring fire. Take pleasure in the simple things, friends, and clean up the oven later.