Reviving the American Chestnut
Plus, a recipe for kuchen de castañas.
I never really gave much thought about chestnuts until I moved to a house with two large chestnut trees in the yard. I haven’t had them tested to see if they are the elusive American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata), fingers crossed, that were wiped out of American forests by blight in the late 20th century, or the Chinese hybrids that are now more common. I can remember tasting roasted ones on the streets of Lisbon once, and seeing bags of them for sale every Christmas, though they haven’t really been much on my radar otherwise.
They were once a keystone tree in American forests, bringing balance to our native ecosystems and our diets. Prior to the 1900s, the chestnut was a staple food in much of the Eastern United States, as well as other parts of the Americas. Native groups would clear tracts of land and plant chestnuts, which is the primary reason they were so widespread. The nuts were abundant and a vital food, and later fed the enslaved and Appalachian settlers. A single tree is believed to have been able to feed a family for a year. When all other crops failed, it was a nutritious back up.
When blight suddenly killed 4 billion of the trees in just a few decades, nearly all of them in the Eastern U.S., many of the recipes stopped being made. Chestnuts stopped being roasted. They stopped being made into flour. They stopped being added to stews. They stopped being used for stuffing, for candy and for thickening sauces. They stopped being used to fatten up – and flavor – livestock.
Reasons for encouraging the use of chestnuts, which are gradually making a comeback, are many and obvious. They shouldn’t be seen as a specialty product, eaten only for holidays, but ought to be an everyday food. Many are working to make this a reality. The American Chestnut Foundation is working to make blight resistant varieties of the tree available alongside the American-Chinese hybrids that are quickly expanding their range. Chestnut trees are being planted by hikers along the Appalachian Trail, on top of old coal mines and by farmers hoping to sell the nuts.
When I realized what I had on my property I joined multiple Facebook groups dedicated to American chestnuts and it has become a well of information and inspiration in growing, harvesting and using chestnuts (niche groups like these are the primary reason I still use Facebook). I want to plant more now, and I think if others know how useful they are, even just from a culinary standpoint, they will too.
This year I had to fight the squirrels for them, but I’ve gathered quite a bit from my two trees through two harvests now. I’m still figuring out what to do with the chestnuts I gather each fall.
I generally freeze some to use for later, so I always have them around. I’ve roasted them simply, of course, which just requires you to cut an x on a side and then place them in the oven for 20 minutes, though plan to try on my Big Green Egg to see if that’s closer to the smoky flavor from sidewalk grills in Europe. I’ve made ice cream with them. I also made a decent attempt at making the French pastry Mont Blanc, of which I learned to love sweetened chestnut purée.
In central Chile, I noticed chestnuts for sale in a market a year ago, and then coincidentally a few days later saw some chestnut trees growing further south. I started to dig around. There are some recipes with them there, as well as in Bolivia, where different non-native varieties of chestnuts are being grown for export. One of the recipes that caught my attention was kuchen de castañas.
RECIPE: Kuchen de Castañas
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