Today I’ve washed and drained my half gallon of acorns and begun the long process of cracking and shelling the nutmeats. I know of several ways to do this, including the hand nutcracker and pick method, but there’s nothing quite so efficient as two rocks and a knife. Unless like me and you own a granite mortar and pestle, even better than two rocks. I’m several days away from acorn bread even if I get the acorns cracked and shelled today, but standing there and sorting them out one by one gives me plenty of time to think. Acorns always make me think of chestnuts.
I came into the world shortly after the American chestnut virtually disappeared from the scene, and I’ve never come across one myself, either dead or alive. As a woodworker I’ve always wondered what working that lumber would have been like. Some of the split rail fences in the Appalachians, built from the straight-grained wood of those ancient trees, still stand. There’s now a thriving but temporary business in reclaiming old chestnut timbers from bridges and piers and re-sawing them into flooring. It’s not wrong to say that the chestnut was the dominant lifeform in the Appalachians until the blight hit. The American chestnut supplied man and beast with a bountiful crop of delicious nuts every fall. All you had to do was pick them up and cart them away by the wagon load, like manna from heaven.
There are only two foods I’ve eaten in my entire life that I reacted to with an instinctive racial memory. Both of them caused something to vibrate deep down in the roots of my DNA. One of those foods was young coconut, that a lady in Thailand served to me for breakfast one morning, fresh from the tree and chopped in half with a machete. I took a bite and felt like I’d been looking for that all my life without even knowing it. The first time I ate a chestnut I felt the same way. There’s something about a chestnut that I remember from times before I was born.
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Naturally, I’ve tried to grow chestnuts, in spite of warnings about the blight. I’ve planted blight-resistant hybrids from the restoration programs, Chinese chestnut seedlings purchased from nurseries, and European chestnuts from seed. The only chestnuts I’ve planted that didn’t quickly expire were Chinese chestnuts, and there may still be a few of them in the stand I planted in the Ozarks, struggling to grow taller than the deer can reach. Deer love to eat Chinese chestnut twigs. That’s why I was surprised to find two Chinese chestnut trees here in the yard, that Alice planted years ago. I guess up here the deer are too full of corn to care about browsing twigs. Two years ago one bore the first chestnuts it ever had, three of them, and this year the crop doubled. We ate the first crop but I’ve saved the seeds from the second year, hoping to expand the orchard in the spring if the crop survives storage. My system is simple, the seeds are stashed in damp potting soil in pots on a closed porch, protected from freezing temperatures and from squirrels.
If I want chestnuts this year, I’ll have to buy them in the store. That’s something that hardly ever pays off for anyone but the store, because no one in this country but the Clemson University Extension Service knows anything about storing chestnuts. If you see chestnuts on display in a grocery in this country, they’re sitting in a bin next to the roasted peanuts. Occasionally they’re packaged in little perforated plastic boxes, but usually they’re just loose in an open box. Your best chance of getting good chestnuts is to buy them right away. Don’t wait for them to go on sale for Christmas, because they’ll have turned to garbage long before that. Chestnuts stay good about as long as peaches unless you take care of them correctly.
Things to Look for in Chestnuts:
- A good chestnut won’t dent when you squeeze it. Fresh chestnuts completely fill the shell, but chestnuts quickly dry out and die if displayed in the open on a store shelf. Refrigerating the crop immediately after harvest and storing the nuts in a cool, humid place such as inside a perforated plastic bag in a refrigerator keeps the chestnuts fresh and viable. In this country, no one seems to do that. If a chestnut dents when you squeeze it, the kernel has already expired and shriveled.
- Good chestnuts don’t have holes in them. You’d think people would know this, but many people don’t check and don’t realize that the chestnut weevil bores holes in many of the nuts and deposits an egg inside. The grub eats part of the kernel and then exits through a larger hole it bores itself. In many chestnuts on display you’ll find just the one hole. I’m sure you could cook and eat the grub as well as the remains of the nut, but I don’t have a recipe for that. Bears aren’t particular and they seem to do well enough.
- Good chestnuts aren’t discolored with greenish mold. A friend of mine says she can tell by smelling chestnuts whether they’re tainted or not. I can’t. If the chestnut hull has any greenish coloration at the tip, it’s probably not good. The fungus turns the nutmeat into something like gray-green sawdust with a nasty smell. If you find a discolored nutmeat, throw it away. You won’t enjoy the flavor and it could cause you harm. Good chestnuts have chestnut brown hulls, shiny with no dusty green or greenish gray coating.
Unless I see holes or mold or it’s late in the season, I might buy chestnuts even if they do dent when I squeeze them. Just double or triple the price you read on the sign, because at least half of them won’t be good and will show the signs of mold invasion when you open them up. The rest might have shriveled but in a good way. One of the ways to process chestnuts for storage involves deliberate drying. If the nuts dry thoroughly and quickly, the kernel dies but turns rock hard. Kept dry, the nuts last all winter. Partly dry, as most expired nuts on store shelves will be, the nuts can still turn moldy. Drying does kill the chestnut weevil eggs and grubs, so if you have a harvest of chestnuts and they all have those little holes, drying the crop can preserve it anyway, along with a tiny shriveled droplet of extra protein.
One of the best chestnut dishes I ever prepared used a dozen of the hardest, most shriveled chestnuts I had ever seen. I pounded them into powder with my mortar and pestle and used them for soup base, along with some chopped mushrooms and a few seasonings. Everyone who got a chance to try it loved it, the sort of soup that made you stop and say “Wow,” a sweet creamy broth with distinctive chestnut flavor, and no one noticed any weevil eggs.
University of Missouri Extension: Growing Chinese Chestnuts in Missouri
Clemson Cooperative Extension: Chestnuts