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Tasting a chestnut for the first time  RSS feed

 
Dan Boone
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Hey, I've read a couple of the chestnut threads here on permies.com and they are on my long-term list of things to try growing, but getting fresh seed-quality nuts from a well-chosen cultivar or hybrid looks to be a tricky, expensive, seasonal task. However last week I was in an Asian grocery and found a two-buck package of chestnuts (presumably Chinese) shrink-wrapped to a foam tray in the refrigerated section. They appeared to be in poor shape (several were moldy, and many were sprouting) and so my eye moved on, until... Wait, WHAT?

All the advice is that you can't grow grocery store chestnuts because they will have been steam-treated to kill weevils. But these were sprouting. I had to buy them; I can never resist a two-dollar horticultural experiment.

This morning as I was washing the mold off and preparing them for planting, I realized that I have never in my life actually eaten a chestnut of any kind. Hmm, shouldn't I taste one? I picked one that was not visibly sprouting and not moldy, washed it well, and made a fast cube of it by making six cuts to chop away the top, bottom, and peel. I looked dubiously at the crisp white cube I had created, and took a little cautious bite off a corner.

Surprise and delight: it was delicious. A crisp sweet almost creamy crunch, unlike anything in my experience. Closest perhaps to a jicama root, but less fibrous, more sweet, and more pleasant to chew. Two more quick bites and my chestnut was gone.

These two-dollar chestnuts may not grow. But if not, I'll be trying again, ordering fresh seed at an appropriate time of year. Much better than I was expecting!
 
John Elliott
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Not everything you buy at the grocery store has been purged of its life. Occasionally a few things will actually sprout for you: ginger, taro, potatoes, an avocado or mango pit -- and in your case, chestnuts. I'm sure the powers that be are working diligently to snuff out these alternatives for the unwashed masses to evade paying them.
 
Dan Boone
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My big grocery store success this year appears to be sun chokes; I bought about a dozen of the smallest ones at Whole Foods and the tallest of them is already about four feet high. I'm just now planting a second wave that's hopefully genetically distinct (bought from Sprouts grocery) because Joseph Lofthouse says they'll make viable seed if you've got a diverse population that cross-pollinates.

Ginger fails for me; even when it's sprouting in my kitchen it tends to rot when I put it in dirt. I do have one ridiculously healthy hill of Russet potatoes that I planted when I found a dropped-and-sprouting spud in our pantry. I also have a doomed mango plant in a pot, next to a pair of doomed cherimoya seedlings. We just don't have the tropical climate for them to do anything useful, but it's fun to see how far they will get before September.

I also have lemongrass clumps growing from a stale/discounted supermarket bunch, and extra mint and rosemary plants I rooted in water from store herbs. I'm always keeping my eyes open for things that look like they want to grow!
 
D. Logan
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They are an interesting flavor. I enjoyed them boiled. When you boil them in the shells, they end up having a consistency/flavor profile similar to a slightly sweet and semi-firm boiled potato. I used to have a few links to groups who were trying to restore the American Chestnut to its former glory. Some were using cross breeding techniques, others were using selective breeding of pure stock. As I recall, they were willing to let anyone have seedlings on the condition that the growth and development was tracked and reported to them on a regular (yearly?) basis. You might look into that as well for another good chestnut option without a lot of cost.
 
Matu Collins
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I feel silly now that I've never tried one raw!

Folks around here roast them. A favorite party food is to roast a lot of them and have butter to dip the nut meats in first and salt second.

Weevils are very frustrating! And sort of gross. The general public does not want to find maggot looking things in their nut bag, and since the larvae can chew through plastic, untreated nuts can mean weevils traveling all around where you don't expect them. Bad for business! I don't have the facilities to stream treat mine and so I can't sell them. We eat them though, and deal with the maggots.

I love finding ways to grow lots of food in unexpected places! I'm trying out planting hickory trees from nuts that fall in abundance on a friend's property

 
Dan Boone
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I'm still looking for a local-ish hickory tree to get some nuts from.

How bad is the maggot problem in chestnuts? Are we talking every other nut, one in a dozen, or one in a hundred? I'm sure "it depends" of course, but generally speaking are there a lot of them? And about that "chewing through plastic" problem, that's the first I'd heard of it. How aggressively do they chew? Are we talking Saran wrap, Ziploc, or "bores through Tupperware and RubberMaid like hot butter"?
 
Matu Collins
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Certainly through ziploc. Here's a photo of the weevil larvae in ziploc type plastic

from this chestnut weevil control thread

The number of weevils must depend. Once a population is established in an area with enough trees to support it, like I have, the weevils sure can take hold. This past year it was around 50%, which is the worst I've seen. I only have three mature producing trees. They are quite large and can produce a bumper crop, and there are other trees in my village, including a large experimental breeding orchard run by our local land trust.

One bright spot is that chickens love chestnut weevil larvae and my kids love to smash weevilly chestnuts on the driveway with hammers as can be seen in this photo

from the kids and permaculture thread



 
Dan Boone
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I love that pic of your helpful kids, I saw it in the other thread.

I should have known there was a chestnut weevil control thread already; since this was a spur-of-the-moment no-research project, I hadn't looked yet. Obviously that problem is years away for me. Interestingly, I notice in that thread a post averring that the chestnut weevil also bores into pecans; I do have pecans and they do (sometimes, it's not a big problem with them) have boring bugs. So there's probably weevils already lurking here ready to eat my chestnuts if I ever get a mature bearing tree.
 
Dan Boone
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Oops. After carefully planting these and watching the sprouts come up, and then gradually wondering why the new growth didn't look like any tree seedling I'd ever seen before, I figured out (with a little help from my permies.com friends) that these "chestnuts" were actually water chestnuts. Doh!
 
Alder Burns
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Just because you found the chestnuts at an Asian grocery doesn't necessarily mean they are Chinese or Japanese chestnuts. The grocery might have gotten them from a grower anywhere, and they could well be hybrid Asian/European or even full European chestnuts, which can be blight sensitive. If you are serious about growing chestnuts I would add at least a couple of trees of verifiably blight-resistant varieties....meaning full-blooded Asians and some of the Asian hybrids.....
 
Dan Boone
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Yeah, well, they weren't chestnuts at all.

Growing actual chestnuts is on my list but not near the top. Intelligent cultivar selection is going to require more research than I've done yet and some budget for genetic material. But there's 40 underutilized acres here, I can afford the space for haphazard planting experiments with stuff I find moldering at the supermarket...
 
Meryt Helmer
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if they where not chestnuts what where they? I am really curious what you got
I was searching for threads on growing ginger and found this one but chestnuts is on my list of tree's to get
 
Dan Boone
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Meryt, they turn out to be water chestnuts, which are not nuts at all, but rather the subterranean corms of a reedy aquatic plant.
 
Meryt Helmer
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I love water chestnuts! I have never had one fresh though. I only ever see them canned.
 
Keira Oakley
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Dan, have you never tasted chestnuts? you are missing something...!
Roasted chestnuts are delicious. Sweet, healthy comfort food. I have travelled quite a bit, and in most chinatowns in south east asia (thailand, malaysia etc...) there is a stand of freshly roasted chestnuts. Northern Thailand on the border to Burma has so many nice different varieties! I also tried some Japanese chestnuts, they were amazing. The french are also into chestnuts, but theirs are really quite expensive... and when you roast them you have to deal with the inner skin, which is really tricky to take away... I find that asian varieties are much easier to peel in general (but not all), and if I were you, I would try to find some variety that has this advantage, because this peeling problem can be irritating and time consuming.
 
Dan Boone
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Nope, I still haven't tasted a chestnut. I don't think I've even seen any for sale anywhere I've been in the last 10 years or so.
 
Cj Sloane
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My supermarket has them for sell in November. They're also in the open "nuts" bin in the fruit section.

Costco sells pre-shelled/roasted chestnuts which were so-so. I could see it as a stuffing mixed with other items.
 
Cj Sloane
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Matu Collins wrote:
The number of weevils must depend. Once a population is established in an area with enough trees to support it, like I have, the weevils sure can take hold. This past year it was around 50%, which is the worst I've seen.


I'm currently reading Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural Resources and the Indians would wait for the early acorns to fall and then burn them and the area around the Oaks. This would destroy the infected acorns (which fall first) and kill any bugs in the leaf litter and keep the ground clear for easy picking later when the good batch fell.
 
Laura Sweany
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I started working for Burnt Ridge Nursery this year, and our owner Michael Dolan is something of an expert in chestnuts. He describes them as a starch, almost like "growing corn on a tree". They have almost no fat or oil, unlike most other nuts.

I got a bunch of large European x Japanese variety called Colossal, and tried them. They were split, so they wouldn't keep very well (chestnuts are highly perishable, and it makes me cringe when I hear of stores displaying them in the dry nut bins. They should always be kept in a cooler.) I found the easiest way for me to prepare them was to steam them for 5-7 min, then place the steamer next to me on the cutting board. Take out 3 at a time, with a knife peel off the tough outer dark skin. Then carefully peel off the soft brown inner skin (called a pellicle) while the nut is still hot, otherwise it's bloody difficult to get off. I could peel about 3 before the nut got too cool to peel the pellicle easily. I found the steam method kept the pellicle soft, too, so it came off easier. Can't really leave it on, either - tastes like wet cardboard. If they hadn't already been split, I would've had to either score the outer shell with a knife (yikes! Scary dangerous) or puncture the soft bottom of the nut with some kind of pointy object so the nut wouldn't explode while cooking (the only time where "getting poked in the butt with a fork" is a good thing).

Also, making sure the nut has just the slightest amount of give when you squeeze it means it has "cured" - the starches have converted to sugars, and they will be doubly sweet. If they get too hard, then you can cook the hell out of them - like in a stew or some such - and still eat them, or grind them into a flour. They're quite versatile.

If you want to start them from seed, try to get the freshest nuts you can, and just plant them. They germinate readily, so Michael says. He sells limited quantities of single-variety chestnuts in sprouting condition, for $8.00/pound. That way, you can try the nut for taste before you decide to plant them for trees. As seedlings, they will take 8-12 years to grow into bearing trees, and there's enough genetic diversity between nuts from the same tree that seedlings will cross-pollinate each other. Grafting chestnuts gets really chancy, because some scion wood doesn't get along with some rootstocks. If you graft seedling scionwood to seedlings used as rootstock (all from the same batch of nuts - same variety), you don't have to worry about rootstock compatibility, and the grafting process itself will push the tree into bearing in something more like 4-6 years from the time the grafting occurs.

I enjoyed the nuts - lightly sweet and starchy - reminded me of a yam. I think I'll plant a small grove of several different varieties, and start enjoying them in a few years' time. I look forward to drying some and seeing how they taste as flour!
 
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