At this time of year, chestnuts begin appearing in grocery stores and city pushcarts draw you in with their wonderful aroma. This tree has an interesting story, from food to industry, and to its near demise. So settle back, perhaps with a cup of warm cider and a roasted chestnut or two, and learn about this fascinating food item.
Chestnut, or Castanea, is a genus of deciduous Northern Hemisphere trees found in Europe, North America, and Asia. It is a member of the beech family, Fagaceae, a family which also includes oaks. There are twelve species overall, four of which are most prominent: the European chestnut (Castanea sativa); the American chestnut (Castanea dentata), which sadly has been ravaged by introduced disease; and two species of Asian chestnut (Castanea crenata and C. mollissima). The nuts ripen within a spiny husk and are further protected by a leathery shell which must be pierced prior to cooking lest the nuts explode from a buildup of steam!
Chestnuts for Food
Humans have eaten chestnuts for thousands of years. And why not! They are high in fiber and a good source of protein; boast minerals including potassium, magnesium, and iron; and are an excellent source of Vitamin C and B6. They may be dried and ground into high-starch, gluten-free flour which makes a good substitute for wheat flour in baking. A tradition of chestnut cake is found in many cuisines of Europe. Marrons glacés, or candied chestnuts, are a winter holiday favorite in France and Italy. The first recipe for them may be found in La Varenne’s cookbook Le parfaict confiturier published in the 1660s.
Today chestnuts are cultivated commercially in Asia and Europe, with the bulk of the world’s production coming from Korea and China. However, people have gathered wild chestnuts from the woods for millennia to supplement their food supplies. “Chestnutting” was a common early winter activity in New England, as we learn from Thoreau:
“Went a-chestnutting this afternoon to Smith’s wood-lot near the Turnpike. Carried four ladies.
I raked. We got six and a half quarts, the ground being bare and the leaves not frozen. The fourth remarkably mild day. I found thirty-five chestnuts in a little pile under the end of a stick under the leaves, near—within a foot of—what I should call a gallery of a meadow mouse. These galleries were quite common as I raked. There was no nest nor apparent cavity about this store. Aunt M. found another with sixteen in it. Many chestnuts are still in the burs on the ground.”
– Henry David Thoreau, January 10, 1853
Some eighty years later, a young Jimmy Carter and his family would engage in the same activity, “chestnutting” in the woods around their farm in Plains, Georgia. Unfortunately their harvest was already in decline due to chestnut blight.
Chestnuts for Timber
Chestnut timber is durable, especially when harvested young, and has many characteristics of oak, making it useful for furniture and woodwork. It has good resistance to rot and has long been used for fence posts. It was a traditional material in England for making hop poles, the supporting structures for hop bines prior to the adoption of wire supports in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Hop poles ten to eighteen feet long were set into the ground with their tops tipped slightly outwards around a hop plant. The bines, or hop vines, were then trained up and then allowed to hang down. The cone shape allowed for plenty of air movement which prevented mildew in damp conditions. Poles were produced from coppiced trees which often could be found along the margins of the hop gardens where they acted as windbreaks. Old poles which had outlived their usefulness would often be given over to charcoal burners and “recycled” into charcoal. Think of this when you sip your next pint.
We’ll leave chestnuts for now, but please check our next post to learn about the challenges faced by American chestnuts since the arrival of bark blight fungus, and the steps being taken to revive the species.
USDA Nutrient Database [link] FAO Corporate Document Repository, “Chestnut Production Statistics.” [link] Carter, Jimmy. “Chestnuts in My Life,” in Mighty giants : an American chestnut anthology / Chris Bolgiano, editor ; Glenn Novak, contributing editor. Bennington, Vt. : American Chestnut Foundation : Images from the Past, Inc., c2007. pp. 7-14.
– Lisa Pearson, Head of Library and Archives