Before the chestnut blight hit the forests of the eastern United States in the late 1800s, an estimated 4 billion American chestnut trees dominated the woodlands. The trees were magnificent and beautiful, reaching 100 feet tall with trunks 6 feet in diameter.
The wood was exceptionally rot resistant, straight-grained and visually beautiful. The annual drop of the nutrient-rich nuts supported many forms of domestic and wild animals as well as Native Americans and settlers from other lands.
By 1950, only 50 to 100 chestnut trees remained.
European chestnuts and Asian varieties, however, were resistant to the blight. These were imported and planted so that American markets could no longer lack for chestnuts. The problem was that most didn’t taste as good as the American natives.
I used to find the remnants of these native chestnuts occasionally along back roads in Pennsylvania. The giant trees had died, but their roots continued to send up sprouts that reach about 8 to 10 feet in height before they were taken by the chestnut blight. But sometimes that was tall enough for the sprouts to flower and form a few nuts, and I have eaten American chestnuts both raw out of hand and roasted. They are delicious, and their deliciousness only underscores what a tragedy befell the king of the forest.
I asked Greg Miller of the Empire Chestnut Company (www.empirechestnut.com) which kinds of chestnuts are the most flavorful.
“There are three species of chestnuts that are grown commercially for food: Chinese, European (also known as Italian), and Japanese,” he said. “In my opinion, the very best-tasting chestnuts are Chinese. Second best would be American if we can ever reconstitute our native trees in enough quantity.
But second best has to go to European. And last place goes to Japanese. In Europe and California, there are many Euro-Japanese hybrids being grown — ‘Colossal’ being an example — but it surely won’t win any quality competition.”
Miller cites another component of chestnut quality: condition.
“Condition depends on the care the chestnuts have been given while they develop on the tree and especially after harvest,” he said.
“When chestnuts first fall from the tree, they are about 3 percent sugar. As they dry, the sugar content may increase up to 25 percent. But dried chestnuts usually become rancid over time.”
Of whatever species, good chestnuts are sweet and flavorful. They are low in fat and high in complete carbohydrates and in trace minerals, more like potatoes or grains than other nuts. As such, they are versatile.
They’re excellent as a meat garnish, such as in chestnut stuffing for the holiday bird. And they have an affinity for game of any sort, for sausage, and pork. They can be dried and ground
into flour for pancakes, muffins and breads.
Add them to a chicken and vegetable stir-fry. Or simply roast them by making a slit in the shell (to prevent bursting), then roasting them in a 400 degree oven for 15 minutes.
When our wood stove is going, I just set them on the top of the stove until they’re tender (don’t forget the slit).