The Return of the Chestnut - Carolina Country

The Return of the Chestnut

Known as “the grain that grows on a tree,” chestnuts now can be grown locally.

By Hannah Miller

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.

chestnuts-02

A prickly chestnut burr pops open to reveal three sweet-tasting nuts inside.

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."

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Freed from their burrs, chestnuts await roasting or boiling.

"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.

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Before roasting, Brad Owen scores a chestnut with a knife so that steam can escape.

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.

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.

chestnuts-08

Charcoal or wood burned in an open fire gives chestnuts a special flavor, says Brad Owen. He uses a pan with holes or a popcorn popper.

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.

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.

About the Author

Hannah Miller is a Carolina Country contributing writer who lives in Charlotte.

Comments (15)

  • Do u have chestnuts now?

    Lora N Parker |
    December 23, 2017 |
    reply

  • I’d like to talk to one of the farmers. Brad Owen is closest to me. I might like to start growing these trees on some land I’ve planted pines one recently. Thanks

    Web Hatley |
    January 16, 2018 |
    reply

  • A friend wanted some chestnuts for Christmas. I had to travel 60+ miles to find any. I think the rebirth of chestnut trees would be awesome in this area. Yadkin County, NC.

    Lora N Parker |
    January 18, 2018 |
    reply

  • We have bare root seedlings available this winter at our farm in Lexington, NC. They are $3 each. You can reach us at 336-249-8327 or 336-239-3675

    Brad Owen |
    January 22, 2018 |
    reply

  • We start harvesting chestnuts in September and continue through the end of October. We usually sell out before Christmas. You can reach us at 336-249-8327 or 336-239-3675

    Brad Owen |
    January 22, 2018 |
    reply

  • My husband and I love eating chestnuts, and we're considering planting some chestnut trees in our yard. It's great that so many people are trying to help others renew their appreciation of chestnuts as you said, and it's cool that the Dunstan chestnut is resistant to blight through the cross of the Chinese chestnut in it. As for consumers, I'd consider my family to be both the nostalgic and the health conscious, and it'll be great to have some growing in our own yard that we can eat as a seasonal tradition.
    https://eusnerfarms.com

    Rhianna Hawk |
    January 22, 2019 |
    reply

  • do you have still chestnut on the tree or your store? I would like to buy the chestnut...I love so much for the chestnut.

    George |
    October 14, 2019 |
    reply

    • Yes, I still have chestnuts for sale. The harvest has stopped, but some are still falling. Contact me e-mail clovecounty@lexcominc.net or phone 336-249-8327. Thanks, Brad

      Brad Owen |
      October 14, 2019 |
      reply

  • Can I notified when your Fresh 2020 chop of chestnuts are available this year?
    Thanks
    Freddie Sullens <
    178 Deyound Road
    Lyman, SC 29365
    freddie.sullens@aol.com

    Freddie Sullens |
    August 08, 2020 |
    reply

  • Hi, when will you have chestnuts and do you ship to Mt. Pleasant Sc 29429. How much is it per pound.

    Thank you

    Maria |
    September 17, 2020 |
    reply

  • I have chestnuts now and they are $5 per pound. I prefer not to ship, but I can as I have in the past. Remember chestnuts are perishable and need to stay in refrigeration. I can ship Priority mail and I think it is about $10 for a box that holds less than 5 lbs, but I would have to double check that price. A Priority box, I think, disregards the weight. Brad Owen 336-239-3675 or clocecounty@lexcominc.net.

    Brad Owen |
    September 24, 2020 |
    reply

  • What is your address?
    Would like some chestnuts and a couple of chestnut trees

    Walter Lentini |
    October 07, 2020 |
    reply

  • Give me a call at 336-249-8327 and we can arrange for chestnuts and seedlings. Thanks, Brad Owen

    Brad Owen |
    October 09, 2020 |
    reply

  • I have 300 10 year old chest nut trees
    A lot of nuts this year
    looking for a market.
    Any Ideas?

    michael dickey |
    October 11, 2020 |
    reply

  • Markets are scarce, but I am receiving more calls from individuals this year. Where are you located? Are you processing them and have them in refrigeration now? What variety do you have? If you would like to contact me, I will be available after 6 today and all day tomorrow. Cell phone is 336-239-3675. Thanks, Brad

    Brad Owen |
    October 12, 2020 |
    reply

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