Harrison’s California Chestnuts
“O chestnut tree, great-rooted blossomer, Are you the leaf, the blossom, or the bole? O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, How can we know the dancer from the dance?”
-Among School Children, stanza 8 by W.B. Yeats
In Yeats’ final stanza of “Among School Children” he’s intimating that life is made up of opposites. Finding a thriving grove of chestnut trees in a hot California agricultural valley couldn’t be more historically opposing to our collective national chestnut memories and traditional sensibilities about this shady giant. The chestnut is somewhat a Western culture mystery—lets just say it’s no avocado, no almond, no artichoke. It’s familiar to us in the verses of a holiday carol, or in poetry, but I have yet to nap under the canopy of a chestnut tree, and if I’m being honest, I have napped under most all kinds of trees.
Sandy Harrison of Harrison’s California Chestnuts invited me into her oasis of chestnut shade in Gridley, where she cultivates Colossal, Nevada, and Silverleaf chestnuts, all Euro-Japanese hybrids. Twelve years ago Sandy and her husband, who has sadly since passed away, spied a very tiny advertisement in the San Francisco Chronicle offering a farm for sale. Their retirement dream was upon them; the soil was good, the water was flowing, and though they hadn’t definitively set out to become chestnut farmers, it became their calling nonetheless. They are not complicated to grow—water, sunlight, tending, harvesting, processing. These particular cultivars, especially the Colossal being hearty and blight resistant, were healthy producers. Colossal chestnuts are aptly named as they’re the chunkiest chestnut, though all the chestnuts are sorted and sold according to size.
I wandered through the orchard, kicking burrs and listening for the tell tale thuds of falling chestnuts with Sandy and Flavio Alfaro, the Harrison’s General Manager. Chestnuts grow like needle-sharp tribbles, prolific and abundant throughout a healthy tree. Covered in burrs, they shoot up and spread out; verdurous and pokey. Inside the cactus-like burr, a nestling trio of shiny chestnut seeds grow together, burnished and snuff-colored until the burr can no longer contain them and begins to split before falling to the ground. Flavio walks to a fallen burr, and steps on the sides to split it open even further, revealing the cozy chestnuts inside. Flavio assures me that this is a common way to harvest a chestnut. Before machinery, people just used their feet.
Sandy gathers these chubby chestnuts in the pockets of her apron and pours them out for me to inspect. Some of them are very large, some are thin, less round than their pod-mates, there are all sizes. Unlike other tree-nuts, chestnuts are mostly water and very little fat. As they sit out curing, naturally converting some of those starches to sugar, the chestnut shrinks inside the shell. When the leathery outer shell has a little bit of give, the chestnut is ready to steam, roast, or boil. Sandy uses a special chestnut knife to cut an X in the flat part of the nut and wedges the tip of the knife in to separate the chestnut from the shell and the inner membrane called the pellicle. You must score the chestnut before cooking or they will explode much like a giant popcorn kernel. A good chestnut is plump and shiny with that signature rich color. They are perishable and require refrigeration—because of their high water content, they will dry out otherwise. Fresh chestnuts will keep for a couple of months in the refrigerator but can also be frozen inside their shells for much longer.
As an indigenous Californian, the chestnut seems almost exotic in its unfamiliarity. And truly, the commercial chestnuts found in the United States are not indigenous. The great American chestnut is all but extinct except for a few scattered groves in the midwest and pacific northwest. At the turn of the century a blight was accidentally introduced to Eastern United States, thought to have come over with some Japanese nursery stock. In a matter of a few decades, the once robust and prolific American chestnut had been all but wiped out. Four billion American Chestnut trees lost in a matter of a few decades. It was said once that a squirrel could start in the branches of a chestnut tree in Massachusetts and not touch ground before Chicago. And now they are gone and all but forgotten in popular American culture.
However, the cultural and economical implications of this loss are still felt most poignantly in the Appalachian Mountains. Being the crown jewel of the Appalachian hardwood forest, straight-grained, highly rot-resistant, this American hardwood was used for homes, barns, furniture, railroad ties, fences, and caskets. The rich tannins were vital for tanning leather, and the nuts were a cash crop and dietary staple for Appalachian families. Children would gather chestnuts by the gallon not just to feed their families but also to feed the hogs on their farms.
Appalachian hogs made fat by the plentiful chestnuts, were considered to have a superior taste to hogs raised elsewhere in the South. Chestnut-fed mountain pork was once a sought after commodity, and it being an incredibly inexpensive way to farm, the Appalachian people had money and meat on the table. The swift decimation of the American chestnut, the single-most important natural resource in the Appalachians, was nothing short of devastating to these mountain communities, and is still widely considered one of the worst natural disasters in American foresting history.
There has been a constant effort at rejuvenation since the blight was discovered. More than tending the remaining groves, and petitioning for funding to study and replenish the American chestnut population, experts are turning toward blight-resistant hybrids made by splicing rootstock with other more resistant species of chestnut. Though this fungal bark disease is also very threatening to the European chestnut trees as well, in California the best orchard selections are hybrids involving chestnuts from Asia that have co-evolved with the blight for the past 6000 years. In California, the chestnut blight is present but not spreading. Under our weather conditions, Colossal trees aren’t dying, even after years of infection—indicating that they are not immune, but can tolerate the disease without ill effect. In the West, growers are using these American/Asian/European hybrids while also relying on isolation and quarantines to prevent the introduction and spread of blight into their successful orchards. And other than blight, there are some weevils, borers, and wasps that are considered minor pests and don’t necessarily present a problem here in California. The upshot is there are very little pesticides used on chestnut trees and it presents an easier opportunity to grow them organically.
Sandy and Flavio walk me through their process, showing me some of their old equipment neatly organized by a meticulous Flavio. There is the retired drum separator, used to sort chestnuts by size but shelved for lack of accuracy and the inability to keep the little nuts out of the holes for the big nuts, and the machines they drive through the orchard to scoop up the burrs, and the conveyor belt that is hooked up to a two-tire wringer the burrs are sent through that work essentially like a rapidly spinning pair of Flavio’s shoes.
In the West, we’ve been conditioned to think of a chestnut as a holiday staple, popping on an open fire, warming hands in wintertime, but technically the chestnut harvest comes in September and October. “We really should call it the Labor Day nut,” Flavio thinks. That is when they’re at their freshest, and in peak demand across the United States. After the harvest is complete, they send their chestnuts to a processing plant where they are homed in cold storage until shipped.
Sandy is the quintessential California grower that we are all becoming intimately familiar with. Taking a chance on a chestnut grove, in her retirement years, in a state with no real historical point of reference for this particular nut, and growing it into a thriving business. It is just the kind of unexpected thing a California grower would do. She is embracing all the opposites, and like most growers, she understands the leaf, the blossom, and the bole cannot flourish without each other.
You can find Harrison’s California Chestnuts in-season locally at S & S Organic Produce, or you can order them directly from Sandy and Flavio at www.CaliforniaChestnuts.com.
The chestnut is a funny little nut, it behaves similarly to brown rice in that it is gluten free and can be made into a sweet, earthy flour. There are several ways to prepare and cook the chestnut, and once cooked, they can be frozen for several months for use in holiday dressings, cakes, or soups. If frozen in the shell, thaw in the refrigerator overnight, and it’s best to prepare and eat them the following day.
Per 1 Oz/28.35g Portion - Dry Roasted (Source data: USDA; www.nal.usda.gov/foodcomp/search/)
Vitamin C: 11mg
Nutrition Comparison of nuts (per ounce) (Source data: The University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry)
Macadamias: Calories-204 Fat-21g
Hazelnuts: Calories-178 Fat-17g
Almonds: Calories-163 Fat-14g
Peanuts: Calories-161 Fat-14g
Pistachios: Calories-158 Fat-13g
Cashews: Calories-157 Fat-12g
Chestnuts: Calories-64 Fat-0.3g
Harrison’s Fresh Chestnut Soup
1/3 cup unsalted butter
12 oz. cooked and peeled chestnuts (1 pound fresh in the shell)
1 carrot, peeled and sliced
1 parsnip, peeled and sliced
1 cup finely chopped celery
6 cups of chicken or vegetable broth
1/4 cup Madeira wine
Pinch of nutmeg
Salt and pepper to taste
2 sprigs fresh finely chopped parsley
Pinch of cayenne pepper, or to taste
¼ cup sour cream or cream fraiche
Direction to prepare the Fresh Chestnuts:
Rinse chestnuts in a colander with cool water.
Use a heavy large heavy knife to cut the fresh chestnuts in half. Carefully, place the nuts in a pan of boiling water and cook 8 minutes. Remove them from the pan and place in a bowl of ice water. The ice water chills the nuts quickly and helps release the shell and the inner skin (pellicle) from the chestnut. Remove the shell with a chestnut knife or paring knife and peel off the pellicle.
(Use these prepared chestnuts same day to make Harrison’s Fresh Chestnut Soup store them in a sealed container in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer for several months.)
Directions to prepare the soup:
Sauté the chestnuts in 1/3 c butter over medium heat until heated through (about 5 minutes). Set aside.
In a large sauce pan, melt the remaining 1/3 c butter and sauté the sliced carrots, parsnips and celery until tender (about 7 minutes). Add the stock, chestnuts and wine. Bring to a boil, then simmer 30 minutes; season with a pinch of nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Puree the soup with an immersion blender, blender or food processor. Reheat as needed before serving. Garnish with parsley, cayenne pepper to taste and sour cream or creme fraiche.