Going nuts, vol. 2

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.)

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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.

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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.)

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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.

Going nuts, vol. 1

When roadtripping in New Zealand in a converted 1999 Ford Transit van with less-than-ideal brakes, there are few things that your partner – who is gamely doing all of the driving – enjoys more than you screeching “Hey! Fresh avocados!” or “Stop! They’ve got pick-your-own strawberries!”, thus forcing him to make dramatic unplanned stops and U-turns, typically on dusty gravel roads with no turning room whatsoever. No, seriously, he loves this! Sometimes, however, you get your act together enough in advance that you can actually plan a visit to a farm, and so it was with our stop at Cathedral Cove Macadamias.

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Cathedral Cove is located on the Coromandel Peninsula, east of Auckland on New Zealand’s North Island. Macadamias, named in 1857 in honor of Scottish-Australian chemist John Macadam, are native to Australia and grown commercially in many of the world’s tropical regions, including Hawaii, South America, Australia and New Zealand.

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Cathedral Cove’s storefront and open-air tasting parlor.

South Africa now produces most of the world’s macadamias, although Hawaii is credited with “introducing” the nut to consumers, specifically with their ubiquitous and smartly-marketed Royal Hawaiian chocolate macadamia boxes which have been given as gifts by travelers returning from Hawaii for decades.

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A few of Cathedral Cove’s mature macadamia trees.

Macadamia trees are propagated by grafting, and they start producing in abundance at about seven to ten years of age. Once established, the trees can produce for over 100 years. They are higher in overall nutrition than any other nut, and they are also typically the most expensive, with the exception of the treasured pine nut.

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These macadamias will be ready to harvest in April or May. After they’re hulled, they’ll be dried for about six weeks before they’re ready to consume.

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Hulls from the previous year’s crop are used as mulch in the orchard, ensuring that nothing goes to waste.

At Cathedral Cove, the macadamias are processed entirely by hand from start to finish, and they’re also completely organic. The macadamias are sold fresh and roasted, and pressed into oil and made into butter, brittle and other value-added products. In addition to macadamias, Cathedral Cove also grows avocados, figs, apples and a variety of citrus fruits.

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At the little storefront you get to eat as many macadamias as you crack!

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Macadamia oil, best used as a simple, flavorful drizzle over salad or grilled bread. It also works wonders as a hair or skin moisturizer!

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Fresh figs that were sadly not yet ready to eat when we visited.

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Cathedral Cove is organic, so no chemical pesticides or herbicides are used in the orchard.

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Bees are absolutely integral to a successful orchard. As at most of the farms we’ve seen, maintaining a healthy pollinator population is essential to a healthy ecosystem.

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We bought avocados to eat with heirloom tomatoes from the farmers’ market…it is summer here, after all.

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Look closely…New Zealand’s most vocal yet least seen creature, the cicada, is hiding here.

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One of the many citrus trees on the property.

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Definitive proof that “drinking wine” actually qualifies as “eating fruit.”

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Meet Willow, one of Cathedral Cove’s organic lawnmowers.

Because macadamias are so delicious (and so precious), they’re best used as a showcase ingredient. As with all nuts, lightly toasting them in a dry pan will bring out their flavorful oils, but tread carefully – nuts burn very quickly. For storage, place in an airtight bag or container in the refrigerator or freezer as the good fats in nuts cause them to turn rancid quickly. Always buy nuts from stores with high turnover (of product, not staff) and whenever possible, smell them before purchasing – rancidity is definitely noticeable. Should you find yourself with a wealth of macadamias, try this. Or maybe this. Or just eat them lightly toasted and salted, perhaps with a gentle dusting of curry powder.

Many thanks to Cathedral Cove Macadamias for welcoming us onto their beautiful property!