When I saw the sign proclaiming “Chestnuts” in front of Rose and Ron Harvey’s U-Pick fruit and vegetable farm just outside Tekonsha, Michigan, I just had to stop. The first thought that came to mind was a big bonfire on a crisp autumn night with good friends drinking mugs of cider and roasting chestnuts over an open fire. Then it occurred to me that I didn’t know the first thing about these intriguing little nuts, the least of which was how to begin roasting them.
So, I stopped for a visit and Ron and Ruth spent the next couple hours educating me about their “fun crop.”
They led me out behind their house to their 1-acre chestnut grove consisting of 68 trees from which they are harvesting this year. The harsh winter of 2013-2014 killed seven mature trees that were more than 21 years old. To keep up with the new demand for chestnuts, they planted 77 new winter-hardy trees on their farm during the spring and fall of 2014. They also planted 100 new trees on their son’s farm, just three miles from theirs.
The Harveys' original trees were started from Chinese Hybrid seedlings that produce a larger variety of nut than the American chestnut. The American variety grew wild in Appalachia and was known for its lumber. They were a big part of the food supply for not only the deer, wild turkeys and other game, but also for the livestock. When the blight killed many of those trees it was a contributing factor to the poverty in that area.
“That’s where grafting comes in,” Ron noted. “You take the best qualities from different varieties and try to make one that is superior to the originals. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t because rapid freezes sometimes damage trees in low areas and spoil the grafts.”
Looking at the trees, I noticed that all the trunks were painted white about six feet up from the ground. Rose explained, “Chestnut trees are real sensitive and they are prone to sunburn in the winter when the sun reflects off the snow. So, we paint the bark to protect them.”
The trees flower in early summer rather than in spring, so they usually escape the danger of frost. Then the first nuts start ripening in late September or early October, depending on the weather. They have to be picked every day otherwise the deer and rabbits help themselves to the treats first. That makes for some quality together time for Ron and Rose as they are out in the grove every evening together.
Picking the chestnuts is quite an adventure in itself. The nuts themselves grow inside of prickly green burrs. When the nuts are ripe, the burrs open to let them fall to the ground. But sometimes the half-opened burrs still cling to the trees and pickers can be seen with garden rakes knocking the burrs to the ground, even though Ron and Rose discourage this practice. “If the burrs don’t fall naturally that means they are not ripe and, by forcing them from the trees, you could get nuts that are still green,” Ron explained.
After chestnuts are picked they can be stored for three to four months if they are kept at the right humidity. The United States imports tons of chestnuts each year and many go to waste because they either dry out for lack of humidity or mold because of too much moisture. The best way to store them is in the refrigerator in ventilated plastic bags. The Harveys store theirs in 48-pound plastic tubs in a cooler. That’s a lot of roasting chestnuts!
When chestnuts come to mind, most people only think of Christmas and open fires, but they are much more versatile than just for one season. They can be eaten in soups, stuffing, pastas, as a vegetable like potatoes, and made into a puree to be used in baking. Some people grind them into flour that is gluten-free for those who can’t tolerate wheat flour. There’s even a recipe for chestnut ice cream!
Rose tells me they have been dubbed “the rice that grows on trees” because their nutritional value is so similar to brown rice. Fresh chestnuts typically contain five to seven percent fat, no cholesterol, very low sodium, and three ounces of the little reddish-brown nuts contain only 194 calories.
Ron chuckled, “They could even have been the original hand warmers. People used to heat them and then hold them to keep their hands warm.”
So, after learning all this, my heart was still set on roasting some of the colorful nuts. I had no idea how many I would need or how to go about the process.
We headed into the kitchen and Rose put a few on a plate for the microwave. “This is the quickest way to roast them,” she explained as she scored each one with a chestnut knife. “Whether you use the microwave, roast them in the oven or use a popcorn roaster over an open fire, always make sure the shell is scored or the nuts are cut in half, otherwise they will explode.”
After a couple minutes in the microwave I finally got to taste one. The meat was yellow, soft and smelled sweet. And the taste … well, it was like nothing I have ever tasted before. I’d expected a real nutty taste, but it wasn’t. Did I like them? By the time I had eaten a few more, Rose was laughing, “Once you’ve eaten a couple, they sort of hook you, don’t they?”
She sure was right. Apparently, a lot of other folks agree. Last year was their best yield ever, more than 4,000 pounds harvested. This year’s crop looks good so there should be enough for everyone to enjoy.
As I headed out the door I knew I’d be back in a couple weeks for my fall pumpkins and squash … and a couple pounds of chestnuts for that bonfire. As for the chestnut ice cream, maybe not!