Sometimes Nature wraps her treasures in tricky packaging. Wrapped like this, she must think pretty highly of chestnuts…
One thing I’m accepting as I learn more about turn of the century food ways is that I can’t expect to whiz in at the last minute, open a can of this and a jar of that and whip up a throwback masterpiece.
Well, not fully true; if I have the foresight to plan ahead and make sure the cans and jars have been put up well in advance, the last-minute slam dunk is still possible. That’s why I’m doing my farm-ly duty by reminding you that September is winding down, October means Halloween is just a few short weeks away and Thanksgiving is hot on its heels.
I say that not to make you hyperventilate in a state of overwhelm, but to inspire you to deliberately avoid said state of overwhelm and plan to enjoy a slower, more purposeful holiday season.
There’s no denying it; the leaves are beginning to turn and that unmistakable spicy smell of fall is in the air. In our area, it’s time for apples, crab apples, black walnuts, hickory nuts, grapes and chestnuts. All exciting and good, but it’s the chestnuts that are on my mind today.
Soon enough, the smell of roasting chestnuts will be teasing from city streets, those glossy nuts in their prickly coats will hit the ground and squirrels will be in a tail flicking frenzy of gathering and burying. Visions of varnished turkeys bursting with chestnut stuffing will be served in magazines across the land. But, did you know that the chestnuts you’ll be eating this holiday will not be from the mighty American Chestnut trees once so abundant, but instead from Oriental or European varieties and hybrids?
Today, we consider the Oak to be the outstanding example of great North American trees, but the American Chestnut once was mightier. Before 1904, when a horrible air-borne blight arrived from the Orient in a shipment of plants, the American chestnut was treasured for both its excellent hardwood timber and nut production.
These valuable trees grew huge and wild and made up nearly half of the national forests between Maine and Georgia. In addition, there were also large commercial chestnut orchards dedicated to growing highly valued “tree corn”. Sadly, after the arrival of the infested Oriental plants, the defenseless American chestnuts all died with devastating effect to already strapped Appalachian homesteaders. They were reliant on the chestnut’s starchy sustenance; chestnuts make a good flour, are excellent roasted and make yummy candy and sweets.
Last year, I took on the chestnut challenge. And yes, it is a challenge. Sometimes Nature wraps her treasures in tricky packaging and all I can say is that chestnuts must be pretty valuable to Her. Of course, my chestnuts were the free kind, gathered from a friend’s yard. I have aspirations for Marrons Glace (fancy for candied chestnuts) this year and will confess to thinking springing for these already peeled babies from Chestnut Growers, Inc. is a pretty fine idea.
Chestnut Jam is an impressive, unique and deliciously sweet spread. While it is very good served simply on crusty bread, I enjoyed it most combined with a tiny bit of chocolate in dessert-y ways like over vanilla ice cream (with fudge sauce), as filling for tarts, chocolate cake or on meringue topped with whipped cream. This recipe is once again from one of my favorites, Preserves: River Cottage Handbook No 2.; Pam Corbin’s contribution to the excellent River Cottage Handbooks series. Have I mentioned how much I love Pam Corbin? I don’t actually know Pam but all the same….
The printable recipe is here in our archives.
And so, such is the sad tale of the once grand American Chestnut. A very real example of the results of our human need to rearrange the universe’s furniture, not being satisfied until we eventually jam up the works. If you’d like to learn more, this is a surprisingly enjoyable read by Susan Freinkel: American Chestnut: The Life, Death and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree.
And to give due respect to the deceased, why not make this the fall you show the chestnuts the love they deserve? I promise, once you’ve got a chestnut habit, there’s no going back…
Update: A couple of you have expressed concern about the photo of the “chestnut” at the top. It is clip art, and since I do not have chestnut trees I was not sensitive to the nuances of look-alikes. Renee’s comment ‘splains it best:
“I just wanted point out that the first chesnut pictured is actually a Horse Chestnut, and it is toxic. You can tell because the pod is not hairy/prickly. They have a terrible bitterness about them, but they taste fine for the first 30 seconds of chewing…that’s the dangerous part, by the time they taste toxic, most people have already swallowed some. If swallowed, one will not die, but they will experience some pretty painful GI distress and vomiting.”