Chestnuts: Before the Roasting
I was thinking about chestnuts the other day as I walked up behind the Tapoco Lodge towards Yellowhammer Gap. If you look up from the trail you can spot the huge stumps of the massive old trees. The American Chestnut, Castanea dentata, was once a very important tree in North America. It is native from New England down through the Appalachians. The trees were valued as timber and also their tanning properties. They were long-lived, sometimes up to 500 years. Everything changed in the early 1900’s. The Chinese Chestnut, Castanea mollissima, was imported into this country and planted on Long Island, New York. Along for the ride came the fungus that almost completely wiped out our native Chestnut tree. The disease the fungus caused was labeled Chestnut Blight. Asian Chestnut trees are resistant to the fungus. There were a few colonies of American Chestnuts that had some resistance to this imported fungus, but not many. The American Chestnut Foundation is helping to bring back this incredible tree.
The first time I tasted a chestnut it seemed to awaken memories of which I was unaware. Perhaps my British blood recognized them. I thought they were wonderful. This time of year most grocery stores carry a small stock of imported chestnuts which can be purchased for making holiday treats. Most of the chestnuts are imported from Japan, China, Spain and Italy. The ones I bought this year came from Italy. They aren’t cheap. The nuts are encased in a spiky outer husk containing two to three nuts each. When they are ripe, the spiky ball drops to the ground and you must shell it to collect the smooth shelled nut. That is only the first step. The nuts are usually cured for about a week in order to allow all that starch to turn to sugar. You want this transformation so that the chestnuts will taste as sweet as possible. Then the outer thin shell as well as the inner brown skin, which is very bitter, has to be removed. This is really hard to do if you don’t blanch them in hot water first. Plus, raw chestnuts have very high levels of tannic acid, which can definitely be a problem for people with severe intestinal, kidney or liver problems. Even women who are pregnant should avoid eating the raw chestnut.
There are two ways to safely eat chestnuts; roasting and steaming. In both cases you need to get a very sharp knife and cut an “x” into the chestnut shell. The shell isn’t too hard and the knife should penetrate fairly easily. If you want to roast the nut, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and cook for about 30 minutes. The shell should separate revealing the sweet nut meat inside. You can also bring an inch of water to a boil in a saucepan, cut the “x” in all the nuts, and steam them in a steamer for about 20 minutes. Keep them hot by wrapping them in a towel when you take them out and immediately pull or snap the shells off and peel off the bitter dark skin. All that remains should be a light yellow nut meat. Yum. Be brave and give them a try this holiday season, and try to imagine what the mountains of western North Carolina looked like when the American chestnut tree was in its heyday.