Let’s Get Nuts

The chestnut’s revival in Virginia.

Nutty. Toasty. Warm. The aroma of chestnuts roasting over a crackling fire. Borne of a tree once nearly extinct, this ancient American treat welcomes the chilled days of winter. Here, we take a look beneath the husk, from harvest to hearth.

Illustrations by Christoph Hitz

Chestnuts by the Numbers

7 — the maximum number of fruits one chestnut husk can contain

12 — the principal species of chestnuts, classified as European, Asian, or American varieties

370 — calories in 10 ounces of chestnuts

50-500 — pounds of nuts a mature tree can produce in a given year

Nutty Comeback

Photo courtesy of the Forest History Society, Inc.

The earliest evidence of chestnuts dates back 10 million years. Once a common dominant tree in the thick forests of the eastern and southeastern U.S., it comprised up to one quarter of the timber volume in some parts of the Appalachians. Chestnuts were planted and cultured by American Indians and, later, colonists. But a chestnut blight, caused by a fungus, spread from New York State throughout the country, killing nearly all chestnut trees within the first half of the 20th century.

In more recent years, restoration efforts underway by the American Chestnut Foundation and other groups have helped bring back this tasty nut by hybridizing the American chestnut with its blight-resistant Chinese cousin.

Top Crop

Kim and David Bryant

David Bryant, owner of Virginia Chestnuts, has been growing chestnuts on his Nelson County farm for 14 years. This year, he anticipates harvesting 10,000 pounds. 

How did you get started?

In the spring of 2004, my wife, Kim, and I planted an experimental crop of more than 100 chestnut trees on a five-acre plot of our orchard. They thrived, and we continued to plant. We now have more than 1,000 trees. Eventually, our trees will mature, and mature trees can produce between 50 to 500 pounds of nuts in a given year.

What should people know about them?

Chestnuts are high in carbohydrates and very low in fat. No cholesterol and gluten-free. Fresh chestnuts are perishable and should be refrigerated.

How would you describe the taste?

More starchy like a potato, but sweeter.

What’s your favorite way to eat them?

Roasted, hot from the grill.

How to Roast

Always cook fresh chestnuts before use; never eat them raw. Remove the chestnuts from their skins by either boiling or roasting them. Start by making a small incision in the skin to avoid chestnut shrapnel flying through your kitchen. Once cooked, peel off the tough shell and the papery thin skin underneath. Peel the nuts while hot to ensure the complete removal of the inner brown furry skin, called the tan, which is bitter.

Sip & Savor

Chestnuts are sweet all on their own—but their nutty flavor adds a festive quality to dishes and drinks. Two professionals share their favorite way to use chestnuts in the kitchen and behind the bar. 

Chef Anthony Nelson of Field & Main in Marshall recommends fire-roasted chestnut risotto with maitake mushrooms and butter poached leeks. Nelson first roasts the nuts on a grill until they are tender, then roughly chops and adds them to the rice mixture.

Mixologist Robert Gregory of Ironclad Distillery Co. and Fin Seafood in Newport News opts for serving the nut in liquid form with a Chestnut Old Fashioned, made with chestnut-infused Ironclad bourbon and bitter chestnut simple syrup.

For the recipes, click here.

This article originally appeared in our December 2018 issue.

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