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Getting Fresh! with Dan"The Produce Man" ®


I’ve heard stories of old about vendors in late autumn and their pushcarts full of freshly roasted hot and steamy chestnuts. Sounds like a toothsome treat on a cold day. But then I’ve only heard of them, never seen them. Over the past few decades, the street vendors have rapidly dwindled. For some, they’re just a memory; for others, a lesson in nostalgic history. Most likely selling permits, along with health department inspections and any other bureaucratic barriers, have made it impossible for the lone street cart vendor.
Chestnuts have a history of famine and struggle of their own in their quest to populate America. The original American chestnut was a larger and sweeter nut than its European siblings. It was a dietary staple of the Native American Indians who taught the pilgrims how to cook them in stews and grind them into flour. Not only humans depended on chestnuts for survival; many forest animals—like squirrels, birds, bears and deer—would gather and store them for the winter. Chestnut trees made up about 25 percent of the eastern American forest and were so abundant that it was said that a squirrel could jump from chestnut tree to chestnut tree from Georgia all the way to New York without ever touching the ground.
Because of their hard wood, the trees were used for railroad ties and telegraph poles. Paneling, furniture and musical instruments were among other uses, and chestnut wood is the major source of tannin for tanning leather. But it wasn’t man’s cutting down of the abundant chestnut forests that killed off the population of chestnut trees. It was his importing of foreign trees in the late 1800s that were grafted into the existing American trees. Particularly, oriental varieties from Japan brought with them a tree blight that spread very rapidly. By 1950 the trees were virtually gone. Efforts are underway to reintroduce disease-resistant American varieties, but it is a process that will take a few hundred years.
Today, chestnut trees in California are grown in several parts of the state. Locally, chestnuts grown in Isleton (Delta Sac River area) hit the commercial market in September, but this year will be a little early, due to the warm spring that we had. The Correia Chestnut Farm grows the Colossal variety, which is a European and Japanese hybrid that’s great for boiling and makes one heck of a roasted chestnut as well. They also grow the revered Italian Marrone variety that is commonly seen in jars of syrup on specialty store shelves.

Handling and maintaining of chestnuts is a common malpractice, not only by the average consumer, but also by the retailers, and in some cases, the growers themselves. At time of harvest, chestnuts have a moisture content of about 50 percent, and all too often, chestnuts are found displayed in the dry section of the produce department with walnuts, pecans and other nuts when they should really be kept under refrigeration right around 32 degrees with high humidity. At home they should be stored in plastic in the refrigerator until about three days before being used. At that point, they should be removed and “cured” for three to five days at room temperature. This allows some of the starch to turn into sugar and a little dehydration to occur so that the inner skin of the nut, which is called the pellicle, will peel away easily when roasted.

When selecting chestnuts in the store, size does not matter. Some varieties are larger than others. It is important to squeeze the nut. If it gives, then it was allowed to dry out after harvesting somewhere in the chain and it is no good. Chestnuts should be firm with dark stripes.
Roasting chestnuts can be flubbed as well, so here’s the real dope: Cut an X on the flat part of the chestnut making sure to pierce the shell. This lets the pressure escape to prevent them from exploding in your oven. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Place the chestnuts on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven—30 minutes for small chestnuts, 40 minutes for larger chestnuts. Place them in a warm, damp towel immediately after removing them from the oven to retain moisture. They can also be roasted over a gas or wood fire in a specially made chestnut roaster.
Chestnuts are low in calories and contain only .02 grams of fat. They are higher in carbohydrates than other nuts, but hey, it’s the holidays—besides, 30 percent of our brain’s energy comes from carbs. Vitamins B, C, a little calcium, iron and magnesium along with lots of potassium too top off the chestnut’s nutritional value.
Now you’ve got all of the chestnut information that will impress you family, friends and co-workers at holiday parties. It’s the perfect icebreaker for conversation with that special someone you’ve been eyeing.