Christmas is coming, but chestnut season is now for local growers
Californians have been following in the footsteps of Europeans for years. We have learned to love wine, espresso, cheese, mushrooms and olive oil. We fancy ourselves “gourmands” and “connoisseurs,” we’ve been saying “Bon appétit” for years, and many of us sort of know what tapas are. Well now, folks, it’s time we start to eat chestnuts.
An integral part of life throughout Europe and Asia, where the beautiful long-leaved trees grow wild and the fruits fall like rain in the autumn, chestnuts are one of those versatile foods that straddle the line between sweet and savory. Often a component of desserts and jams, they may also be ground into flour for use in bread and pasta. Simply roasted, however, and eaten as nature wrote the recipe, chestnuts are legendary.
But Paul Harrison at California Chestnuts, a 14-acre farm in Gridley, 15 miles north of Yuba City, has faced a challenging local market since acquiring the property quite by accident in a real-estate deal six years ago.
“A lot of Californians aren’t sophisticated in knowing what a chestnut is and, especially, knowing what fresh is,” he told me earlier this month during the final days of the harvest. A fresh chestnut, says Harrison, is a chestnut that shines a lustrous, polished brown and is tight in its husk—but when Christmastime comes around and some of us are inclined to buy a sack, many chestnuts tend to be over the hill; their color has faded to a dull tan, and they may rattle in their skins, signifying old, dehydrated fruit, usually imported from western Europe or eastern Asia.
Harrison, who grows three cultivars—primarily colossals—has already sold most of his 10-ton 2009 crop to brokers, mostly back east. He says he would like to sell to local consumers, but the interest isn’t quite there. Retailers do carry the fruits, he observes, but those that he has sampled in winters past were old and stale.
However, fresh local chestnuts are to be had, and the time is ripe. The season is over, as are the 100-hour weeks and the long nights of headlamp harvesting. The nuts are still fresh in the markets. Winters Chestnuts has sold much of its crop to such markets as Ikeda’s produce stand in Davis and Oto’s Marketplace in Sacramento, and the farmers sometimes hold court at the Davis Farmers Market.
Downstream from Sacramento, in Isleton, Harvey Correia owns 5 acres of chestnuts, planted in 1999 after he removed his small Delta pear patch. Correia chose the chestnut as a pest-resistant tree crop with no need for sprays and scant local competition. He planted colossals but several years ago began cutting them back and grafting on other more interesting varieties—especially the marroni, a richer, sweeter fruit popular in Italy—and today the trees stand about 18 feet tall. They are growing rapidly, the annual yield is escalating and, according to Correia’s sales, local demand is on the upswing.
Correia notes that smart chestnut eaters buy the fruit as early as possible; those who wait until late November and December are almost certainly getting spoiled nuts. Europeans, who have been eating chestnuts for millennia, know better than that.
“They don’t have Thanksgiving to wait for,” notes Correia, “and so Europeans eat chestnuts at the appropriate time.”
Which is right now.Chestnuts on an open fire
Chestnuts have been called the “un-nut” and the “grain that grows on trees.” They are very low in fat, rich in complex carbohydrates and high in water content. Roast them in the oven, peel away their husks, brush off the fuzzy skin and voilà. You might even roast them on an open fire. Just don’t wait until Christmas.