BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS email@example.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — 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.”
Once commonplace, American chestnuts all but disappeared from the landscape during the first half of the 20th century as the result of a lethal fungus infestation known as the chestnut blight. Since then, American farmers have been trying to revitalize the chestnut industry using disease-resistant varieties.
Cooper said Croft Chestnuts has some American chestnut trees but most are from Chinese seedling trees that are hyper-virulent, along with Korean and Japanese varieties.
“These trees are not the size and scale of the American chestnuts, which were these majestic trees,” she said. “They’re smaller and broader with a wide canopy.” The Michigan-grown chestnuts are a little smaller than the typical European variety, but are sweeter, more flavorful, fresher and better in quality than their imported counterparts, she said.
Harvesting the nuts is labor intensive and, without specialized equipment that is expensive to import, involves crawling on hands and knees. That’s because the bur drops to the ground and splits open to release the fruits or splits open on the tree and drops the fruits to the ground.
Cooper said the harvest takes place over about two weeks, during which individual trees drop ripe chestnuts on their own timetable.
“In the heat of the day you can hear the nuts falling,” she said. “Because they rely on moisture, they can’t remain on the ground indefinitely so they need to be picked up off the ground, washed, sorted and bagged, put into cool storage and shipped. It provides some challenges.”
Chestnuts are mostly water by weight and so they’re prone to mold and moisture loss over time if not properly stored. Stored properly they can last up to eight weeks.
Cooper said her favorite way to prepare the nuts is to cut them in half with a sharp knife, sauté them in olive or coconut oil for about four or five minutes until the smooth, leathery shell and inner fibrous skin falls off, then sprinkle them with sea salt.
“I like them better than popcorn,” she said. Other methods include roasting, microwaving and boiling.
To experience the nut’s interesting flavor and nutrition benefits in a recipe — chestnuts are high in protein and complex carbohydrates, low in fat (thanks to that moisture content), and gluten- and cholesterol-free — Cooper suggests trying them in a stuffing (below).
“The stuffing is marvelous,” she said. “The chestnut is cut into pieces, not small, then it’s sort of a sweet little nugget in the stuffing.”
Oven Roasted Chestnuts
Preheat the oven to 375° F. With a sharp knife, make a slit through the smooth outer shell . Place the nuts on a shallow pan or cookie tray. Roast in the oven for approximately 15-25 minutes, turning over after 5-10 minutes for a more evenly roasted chestnut. Remove and let cool slightly before peeling both shell and skin (they will peel more easily when they are still warm).
3 c. chestnuts, shelled and blanched
½ c. plus 1 1/2 t. butter
1 t. salt
1/8 t. pepper
¼ c. cream
1 c. cracker crumbs
Shell and blanch chestnuts by cutting a gash 1/2 inch long in the flat side of the chestnut, putting in an omelet pan with 1 ½ teaspoons butter and heating thoroughly for several minutes, stirring frequently. Then stand in the oven for 5 minutes. In this way the shell can be easily removed and the inner skin will come off, too, thus blanching the nut at the same time. Cook the chestnuts in boiling salted water until soft, then drain and mash. Add 1/4 cup butter, salt, pepper and cream. Melt 1/4 cup butter, add cracker crumbs, mix well, then add to the chestnut mixture and mix thoroughly.
1 T. butter
1 T. flour
2 c. chestnut puree
2 c. milk
6 c. chicken stock
1 T. onion, finely chopped
¼ c. celery, finely chopped,
Salt and pepper to taste
3 T. sherry or wine
Melt butter in a large pan. Add flour and stir until smooth. Add chestnut puree, milk, chicken stock, onion and celery, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for 20 minutes. Just before serving, stir in beaten egg and sherry or wine.
Storing chestnuts • If newly harvested, place chestnuts in a brown paper bag in the crisper drawer of the refrigerator for one to two days to remove some of the surface moisture. • Transfer the nuts to a zip-lock bag, making sure to place a couple of holes in the bag to allow moisture to escape. Store the bag in the crisper drawer of your refrigerator. A piece of paper towel inside the bag will absorb any moisture released from the nuts and preserve them for up to eight weeks. • Chestnuts can be frozen but only after they have been peeled. Peel both shell and inner skin by cutting an "x" at the base of the chestnut and steaming over boiling water, covered, for two minutes, or making an "x" on both sides of the nut and grilling on a griddle over medium heat for three minutes. When hot, skin and shell peel off easily. • Keep chestnuts refrigerated. If left out at ambient temperatures above 40 degrees, the chestnuts will dry out and harden.