TRAVERSE CITY — Ella Cooper pulled down a chestnut tree branch with a glove-shielded hand and broke open a spiny bur to see how the three chestnuts inside were ripening.
“I expect to start harvesting next week,” said Cooper, operations manager of Croft Chestnuts, which grows and sells chestnuts online from its three commercial chestnut orchards.
The family operation of about 1,600 trees has been in business since 2005 with groves of trees near Long Lake, on the Old Mission Peninsula and in Eastport.. Customers include the Denver Christkindl Market, which roasts and sells the chestnuts at its downtown festival inspired by Germany’s Christkindlesmarkts, and Trattoria Stella in Traverse City, which roasts and serves them as a fall and winter appetizer.
“We score them across the top of the shell so they don’t explode, coat them with olive oil and sea salt, and roast them at 500 degrees for seven or eight minutes until they open, then serve them in a paper bag,” said Stella manager Craig Clark. “It’s a classic Italian street corner food, and you’d find them in New York on street corners in the winter, too.”
Cooper and sister Olivia Lagina, who owns Croft Chestnuts with her husband, Marty Lagina, grew up in the United Kingdom, where chestnuts are an important part of holiday celebrations. Besides being made into chestnut stuffing and tucked into Christmas stockings, the nuts are roasted in bonfires as part of Guy Fawkes Day, Nov. 5.
In fact, chestnuts are a staple in many European, Middle Eastern and Asian countries, where their use ranges from grains or vegetables akin to rice or potatoes to candied and glazed sweet treats.
“It’s a relatively new fruit here,” said Cooper, whose family chestnut operation is the largest north of Grand Rapids. “It’s a different crop. There aren’t a lot of chestnuts in America. The tree here in America is only being reintroduced.”