I am lucky to have Carol Porter’s chestnut farm nearby. After all, the whole United States has fewer than a thousand chestnut farms, totaling a little over 3,700 acres. Americans grow only 1 percent of the world’s chestnuts, while importing about five times the tonnage we produce. We would grow and eat many more chestnuts than that, I believe, if we could remember how good they are—even though they are a bit of a pain to prepare.
Americans once venerated the chestnut—the tree, at least, if not the nut itself. The American chestnut grew straight and tall, to more than 100 feet, and it dominated the forests of eastern North America. Its straight grain and resistance to rot made it ideal for log cabins—especially for foundation logs—and for poles, posts, masts, floors, and railroad ties. The nuts fed domestic pigs and cattle as well as people and wildlife.
By 1950, however, the American chestnut was a fading memory. In just a few decades, a fungus imported with Asian chestnut trees had killed nearly every American chestnut. This disaster was worse than the stock market crash of 1929, Carol says, in that it devastated the lives of the masses rather than harming a relatively few rich people.
Carol doesn’t actually favor American chestnuts. She acquired her American trees by mistake, after a nursery owner grafted European chestnuts (Castanea sativa) to American (C. dentata) seedlings. The grafts failed, and the rootstock grew up slender and tall among the wide, round canopies of the Chinese and European chestnuts.
Carol does like Chinese chestnuts (C. mollissima), which grow particularly well in her hillside orchard and reach only about 40 feet in height.
Yet all of the nuts Carol sells come from another chestnut variety, the Colossal, a hybrid of European and Japanese chestnuts (C. crenata) bred in California in the early twentieth century. The Colossal is vulnerable to chestnut blight, but that disease has never become an epidemic on the West Coast, with our dry summers and lack of native chestnuts. The American chestnut thrives here for the same reason.
Recently Carol led me and a few friends through her orchard. As Carol talked, the rest of us filled our pockets with American and Chinese chestnuts, which otherwise would have fed Carol’s pigs and goats, before Carol led us to an outbuilding to buy bags of washed and dried Colossals. Our petty theft allowed us to do a taste comparison later, at home, after roasting some of the nuts. The small, rather flat American chestnuts are said to be sweetest, but Robert, Renata, and I all found them more nutty than sweet. The Chinese chestnuts, bigger and rounder than the Americans, were sweetest. The very big Colossals—often an inch and a half across—were least sweet and least nutty. They tasted starchy, like yellow sweet potatoes, and mealy. European chestnuts, after all, have only 4 percent fat, in comparison to 10 percent fat in American chestnuts. Although Carol’s customers want the biggest chestnuts available and so buy only Colossals, we preferred the American and Chinese nuts.
All of the chestnuts we brought from Carol’s farm required some work in shelling and peeling. A chestnut has not only an outer shell but also a thin inner skin. Unless you are a hog, the skin as well as the shell is best removed before eating. To keep the nut from exploding, you slit the shell on the flat side once or twice, without cutting the flesh, before cooking the nut. Depending on how you plan to use the nuts, you might boil them after slitting, but for eating on their own chestnuts are traditionally roasted. Renata remembered her Swiss brother’s advice: Soaking slit chestnuts in water for as long as overnight makes it easier to remove the skin after roasting. To Renata and to me, an overnight soak seems overlong for fresh chestnuts, but we both found that a 15- to 30-minute soak really does seem to loosen the skins.
Oddly, chestnut recipes are scant in old American cookbooks. Mrs. Lincoln, in her Boston Cooking School Cookbook (1884), has recipes for chestnut stuffing and chestnut sauce, both intended for poultry, and The Settlement Cookbook (I have the 1976 edition) combines chestnuts with cabbage, with brussels sprouts, and with prunes, and also includes recipes for chestnut croquettes, chestnut ice cream (yum!), and “chestnut dessert.” But, perhaps because the nuts were just too cheap and commonplace, many old American cookbooks have no chestnut recipes at all, and most of the recipes I did find were identified as French or Italian.
I knew what I wanted to do with my chestnuts, and I knew how I wanted to do it. I would make a simple chestnut soup. The first chestnut soup probably came from France, source of so many purées, but no matter. The soup is sweet and smooth and not too rich, and it will satisfy you even if you forego bread with the meal. It is a very good use especially for Colossal chestnuts or any European variety.
I garnished my soup with a bit of chopped parsley, which provided an interesting contrast in color, texture, and flavor. I would have used finer, paler celery leaves instead, if I’d had any on hand.
1½ pounds fresh chestnuts, in their shells
4 cups chicken stock
3 tablespoons butter
4 ounces chopped yellow or white onion
1½ cups whole milk
½ teaspoon fresh-grated nutmeg
½ teaspoon fresh-ground white pepper
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped celery or parsley leaves
Slit each chestnut once crosswise, or twice in the form of a cross, on the flat side. Put the chestnuts into a bowl, cover them with water, and let them soak for 15 to 30 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 425 degrees F.
Lay the chestnuts slit-side up in a roasting pan. Roast them in the hot oven for 20 minutes.
Remove the pan from the oven. As soon as the chestnuts are cool enough to handle, peel off their shells and as much of their skins as you can. If a nut crumbles while you’re trying to skin it, scrape the flesh out of the skin with a spoon. Combine all of the meats in a saucepan with the chicken stock. Bring the mixture to a simmer, and let it continue to simmer for 20 minutes.
While the chestnuts simmer, melt the butter in a small skillet. Add the onion, and sauté it until it is soft.
When the chestnuts have finished simmering, put them and their cooking liquid into a blender jar. Add the sautéed onion, and blend the mixture to a purée. Pour the purée into the saucepan. Add the milk, nutmeg, and white pepper. Stir, and add salt to taste. Heat the soup just to a simmer.
Serve the soup hot, garnished with the celery or parsley leaves.
For recipes for chestnut cream and preserved chestnuts in syrup, see The Joy of Jams, Jellies, and Other Sweet Preserves.
More about Chestnuts
American Chestnut Foundation
The Faint Taste of a Lost Harvest (New York Times)
Growing Chinese Chestnuts in Missouri
Chestnut Culture in California