A Year of Idaho Food collaboration between the Boise Weekly and Boise State Public Radio.
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“I think we got a rainstorm coming in,” Peggy Paul said, pointing to the ominous band of clouds rolling our way on a blustery, mid-November day. She led me into the shelter of her nearby orchard as icy rain began to tick against the dry leaves and bristled burrs that clung to some 500 chestnut trees.
As my eyes adjusted to the light under that nearly closed canopy, I whispered the word “beautiful.” Those trees both protected us from the rain and reminded me–with hundreds of trunks giving way to a tangle of interlocking branches–of an enchanted forest far more than a commercial orchard.
Enchanted or not, a chestnut forest is a rare sight. That’s because, as a recent New York Times article put it, the American chestnut (Castanea dentata) “had a worse 20th century than the British Empire, the ice-delivery trade or rhyming poetry.”
Once a stately member of the Eastern hardwood forest ecosystem, up to 4 billion American chestnut trees fell victim to a blight during the 1930s and 1940s, virtually scouring the species from its native habitat. That’s why the majority of Americans today experience the chestnut via imported and frequently inferior Chinese chestnuts, or vicariously through that 1946 nostalgia-laden chestnut of a ballad, “The Christmas Song,” in which Nat King Cole crooned about chestnuts roasting over an open fire.
“These are Colossal chestnuts,” Paul said of the stately trees that surrounded us. “This is a strain of chestnut that has been crossed with a domestic nut and a Chinese chestnut. They’re blight-free chestnuts.”
With the relatively recent development of disease-resistant stock, new strains of chestnuts are being introduced into the tree’s historic habitat, as well as into entirely new territory, like Peggy and Jim Paul’s commercial orchard near Nampa.
“I, along with a lot of growers within the Northwest and the Midwest, am trying to bring chestnut trees back to the United States,” said Paul.
Paul knows of one other commercial chestnut grower near Horseshoe Bend, about 20 growers in Oregon, 15 in Washington and another 50 in Missouri and Illinois.
As Paul and I wandered through her orchard, we crunched our way through a lumpy carpet of what looked like brown, porcupine-quilled Christmas ornaments. She carefully picked one up–a chestnut burr–and through a slit in its side, showed me three shiny chestnuts nestled tightly within. Thankfully, she added, most burrs don’t cling so tenaciously to their contents.
“When the nut ripens, the burrs open and the nuts fall to the ground,” Paul said. “Just kind of Mother Nature’s way of helping harvest.”
Though the Pauls had wrapped up their 2011 harvest a few days before, Peggy Paul remembered just how the season began.
“This year’s first 5 pounds were picked by my 3- and 5-year-old grandsons,” she said. “They came out here, and it’s like an Easter egg hunt: ‘Come on grandma, let’s look for a nut.'”
A trickle of nuts start falling from the sky at the beginning of autumn, which soon turns into a deluge as more and more burrs burst open, sending thousands of pounds of chestnuts raining down as the harvest progresses. For that, Paul hires a crew.
According to a 2009 study conducted by the University of Missouri, commercial chestnut production in America is “still in its infancy” as growers like the Pauls plant and tend young, blight-resistant orchards that haven’t yet reached full maturity. The Capital Press, an agricultural weekly, reported last year that “many chestnut growers in the U.S. have no problem selling their entire crops year after year, either fresh or processed.”
When the Pauls planted their orchard in 1993, they thought of it more as a hobby than a way to capitalize on a resurgent interest in a nearly extinct crop. Several years passed before they even began to collect chestnuts.
“In 1998, I had enough to do my first big Albertsons order,” Paul said with a smile. “At that time, it was 50 boxes. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. Now, we have a Portland, [Ore.,] distribution center and Salt Lake [City] distribution center. We supply Albertsons/SuperValu in close to 20 states.”
In Idaho, the Pauls sell their fresh chestnuts under the name “Idaho Chestnut Growers” in several Paul’s Markets, Super One Food Stores in North Idaho, Atkinsons’ Market in the Wood River Valley, and at Boise Co-op. According to Paul, several area restaurants like Gino’s Italian Ristorante in Meridian, Copper Canyon in Nampa, and Murphy’s Seafood and Steakhouse in Boise have included their chestnuts on menus.
A few days later, Nick Duncan, head chef at La Belle Vie in Nampa, showed me a chestnut risotto he was making as a dinner special from chestnuts he’d picked up from the Pauls earlier that morning.
Rather than carefully scoring the hard outer membrane of the chestnut first, a laborious task that turns off many a chestnut novice, Duncan simply chopped the nut in half with a sharp chef’s knife before parboiling it. He then scooped out the chestnut meat while still hot, explaining that the meat clings to the pellicle (the thin, inner skin) if left to cool. Once cooked, he said, you can make soups, stuffings, desserts or any of number of other preparations.
For his chestnut risotto, Duncan sauteed parboiled chestnuts in brown butter, then added a little brandy and marsala, let it simmer until the chestnuts were soft and, finally, pureed the mixture. He then used that sweet, earthy base to enrich his risotto.
Duncan also plans to make a chestnut and sherry soup as one of seven courses he’ll offer at La Belle Vie’s New Year’s Eve dinner party.
“What I wanted to feature is a French delicacy,” Boise Co-op cooking instructor Sylvie Ryan told me as she set up a chestnut demonstration in early December. “It’s called marrons glaces, which are candied chestnuts.”
Ryan grew up eating chestnuts in France (the chestnut blight didn’t strike Europe), and the labor-intensive marrons glaces remind her of home.
“They take about a week to prepare, and you just slowly add sugar to the syrup [made of water, sugar and fresh vanilla bean] every day,” said Ryan. “You let the chestnuts soak the sugar in, and then you glaze them in the oven.”
That final glazing gives marrons glaces its name and creates a sweet crunch to a chestnut confection that may have been created not long after the Crusades brought sugar to France.
Once Paul and I stepped out of the rain and into her small warehouse, she told me how to make classic, roasted chestnuts. You can buy a special chestnut roaster, she said, that has a wire mesh clam-shell at one end and a long handle that allows you to hold the roaster over an open fire, a la Nat King Cole. Paul, however, prefers throwing the nuts into a perforated aluminum pan on a barbecue grill heated to about 350 degrees, closing the lid and letting the nuts roast for about 25 minutes.
Paul offered me some still-warm roasted chestnuts she’d grilled earlier. After prying one out of its shell and popping it into my mouth, I could understand what a tragedy it must have been for earlier American chestnut lovers to lose their beloved trees to blight and never again be able to savor the sweet, earthy flavor of a freshly roasted chestnut. However, thanks to a new crop of American growers, like the Pauls, that taste no longer has to be just a memory.
Before leaving, Paul gave me one last, essential bit of chestnut advice:
“You always score a chestnut before cooking it,” she said. “Once in a while I’ve been roasting chestnuts in downtown Boise and forget to score one and it will blow up in a customer’s face, which is very embarrassing.”
Guy Hand is a writer, public radio producer and photographer specializing in food and agriculture.