The Return of the Chestnut
Brad Owen, a member of Energy United in Lexington, is surrounded by ripe chestnuts in his Clove County orchard.
American chestnuts gave sustenance and income to many a North Carolina mountain family during the first decades of the 20th century. Wildlife feasted on them, hogs were let loose to devour them, and children gathered them both to eat and to export to northern cities during holiday periods.
The mighty trees that bore them fell with a thud, however, victim of a vicious blight that left scarcely a tree by the middle of the century. The nuts disappeared from the public consciousness.
Now a handful of North Carolina orchardists are trying to awaken food fans' interest in a chestnut that, if not the original, retains some of the genes of that king of the forest. It's a Dunstan chestnut, a cross between a healthy American chestnut and a shorter but blight-resistant Chinese chestnut.
The nuts, which grow three to a prickly burr, have such a sweet taste that, when roasted over a charcoal fire, "they almost taste like steak," says orchardist Brad Owen of Clove County Farm in Lexington, a member of EnergyUnited. It's a taste he and the other members of N.C. Chestnut Growers Association, armed with an N.C. Dept. of Agriculture specialty crops grant, have been introducing at farmers markets and specialty grocery stores, and via www.piedmontlocalfood.com, restaurant chefs, and retailers including Chapel Hill-based gift-box purveyor Southern Season.
Once freed from its burr and the dark brown skin surrounding it, the chestnut is practically an all-purpose food, says Owen. It's high in carbohydrates and much lower in oil than many other nuts, prompting one description of it as "the grain that grows on a tree."
"It's more like a potato than it is a pecan, but with a much more robust flavor," says Richard Teague, who, with 500 trees on his High Rock Farm in Gibsonville (www.high-rock-farm.org), is the largest grower. He grinds some of his nuts into gluten-free flour in his grist mill, and Owen, whose output has grown steadily, hopes to have some of his nuts ground there as well.
Lee Hinkle, proprietor of the old-fashioned Conrad & Hinkle Food Market on Lexington's town square, says he sold nearly all of Owen's 10-pound delivery of nuts in one autumn week — at $5.99 a pound. He expects to sell 10 pounds per week October–December.
He has two kinds of customers for the nuts. The first are the nostalgic ones. "The old-timers that come in here know exactly what to do," he says. "They'll line them up along the hearth (to roast)."
The other category of customer is the health-conscious one, who appreciates the fact that the chestnuts are organically grown, gluten-free and have a low fat content.
Brenda Sutton, the Rockingham County Extension director who as "The Produce Lady" promotes N.C.-grown foods on www.theproducelady.org, is gluten-intolerant and therefore "passionate" about chestnuts, she says. She's featuring a video on using N.C.-grown chestnuts on the website this month. Her favorite dish is a chestnut-flour cake recipe from Richard Teague that uses extra eggs to make up for the lack of gluten, ordinarily a binding agent in dough. "It's like German chocolate cake," she says.
Chef Dion Sprenkle at Dion's restaurant in Welcome makes pancake batter with the flour and also fries calamari with it. "It gives it a nice, nutty brown sweet taste to it," he says.
And at Pinocchio's of Spencer, Italian-born chef Guiseppe Lopriore serves shiitake mushrooms over chestnut fettuccine. "People like it because it's kind of salty but, at the same time, it has a sweet taste."
He also boils nuts that Brad Owen brings him, then throws them in the food processor. Voila! It's a custard base, which he puts in an ice cream glass with chocolate, rum and vanilla. On top he puts a garnish, "a little whipping cream and a whole chestnut."
"If you want something different, this is the place," he says.