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CHESTNUTS ROASTING ON AN OPEN FIRE

written by
Marianne C. Ophardt
WSU Extension Faculty
for the Tri-City Herald, Kennewick, WA
Published 12/21/2012

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire? Immortalized in a Christmas song, chestnuts were once a popular seasonal food treat, especially in New York City where street vendors sold them from carts on the street. Some NYC vendors still sell them in areas of the city frequented by tourists, but the popularity of this seasonal treat has waned.

What are edible chestnuts? Since chestnuts are not at the top of everyone’s ‘favorite nuts’ list, it’s surprising to find out that this nut is very popular elsewhere in the world. Behind coconuts and peanuts, the chestnut ranks third as the most important nut crop in the temperate zone. Do not confuse edible chestnuts with the horsechestnut or buckeye tree (Aesculus hippocastanum) that has similar looking nuts that are poisonous. (For information on telling them apart go to: http://www.clemson.edu/extension/hgic/food/pdf/hgic3270.pdf)

How good are edible chestnuts? While they have fallen out of favor in this country, fresh edible chestnuts are said to be both tasty and sweet. They have many uses including grinding the dried nuts into a flour for people allergic to grains. Edible chestnuts are quite starchy, containing about 40 % carbohydrate, 40% water, and 5 to 10% high quality protein. They’re less than 5% oil, making them different from many other nuts that have a much higher fat content.

Why aren’t chestnuts more popular in this country? Chestnuts were once a very important tree in the US, especially during the early colonization of the country. Chestnut wood was prized as fuel and for making houses, barns, fences and railroad ties. The tannins from the bark was used in leather tanning. The nuts provided food for people and animals.

Unfortunately, the native American chestnut (Castanea dentata) was attacked by a blight that is believed to have entered the country from Asia in the early 1900

s. By the 1950

s most of the native chestnuts in this country had been eliminated by the disease.

While imported chestnuts are usually available during the holidays, I think one of the main reasons they’ve lost their popularity is because grocery store chestnuts are not usually very fresh. Due to poor storage and handling, they tend to be dried out or moldy… and not that tasty.

Are any chestnuts grown in this country? Chestnut blight has eliminated most of the native American chestnut trees and both the nonnative Japanese (C. Crenata) and European (C. sativa) chestnuts that had been planted here. Plant breeders sought to breed resistant edible chestnuts for chestnut production, creating hybrids using the blight resistant Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima). The American Chestnut Foundation is working to develop a blight resistant American chestnut to repopulate the native chestnut forests that existed in this country before the blight. To do this they’re crossing the American chestnut with the Chinese chestnut.

Are there any commercial chestnut growers in this country? There are some smaller acreage, part-time chestnut growers throughout the US, but we produce less than 1% of the world’s supply. Some of these growers are here in Washington and Oregon. The closest growers are Trails End Chestnuts in Moses Lake (http://www.chestnuttrails.com) and Colossal Orchards in Selah (http://www.chestnutsusa.com). Warning! You have to order your fresh chestnuts early, as they are sold out by this time of year. So go nutty next year and order some chestnuts next August. They just might become a nut you’re willing to sing about.

Published: 12/21/2012 2:36 PM

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