Thanks in part to an MSU professor, Michigan reaps the sweet rewards of a renewed chestnut harvest season
Photographs by EE Berger
If you buy fresh chestnuts at Detroit’s Eastern Market, the Royal Oak Farmers Market, or get them roasted on an open fire at Holiday Nights at Greenfield Village, then you are part of the shop-local trend. Most folks don’t know it, but those chestnuts are from Michigan, and are part of the state’s expanding crop of the fruit in our state.
That’s right: fruit. Spiny burrs (pictured above left) contain the fruit we call chestnuts. Unlike most nuts, chestnuts are low in fat. They’re also high in complex carbohydrates and vitamin C, and are even gluten-free.
“Unfortunately, 85 percent of the American population hasn’t eaten a chestnut,” says Dr. Dennis Fulbright, a plant pathologist and professor at Michigan State University. “Although some sing about it,” he adds with a smile, referring to the lyrics of the perennial Nat King Cole favorite, The Christmas Song. “They really don’t know what they’re singing about.”
Fulbright has spent the last 20 years working to find the best chestnut tree to grow in Michigan for orchard production of culinary chestnuts.
The American variety was decimated by blight that ravaged an estimated 4 billion trees across 200 million acres in the eastern United States in the first half of the 20th century.
“Chestnut trees have the worst plant diseases in the history of mankind,” says Fulbright. “The blight has been just a devastating disease.”
Groups like The American Chestnut Foundation are dedicated to re-establishing widespread growth of the native variety, but, in the meantime, Fulbright has found a Japanese-European hybrid to be well-suited to Michigan’s climate.
“Our cultivar [variety] that leads Michigan now is the Colossal,” he says. “It produces a large yield of nuts and the largest nuts.”
Not only that, Michigan has a naturally occurring bio-control — a virus that lives in the blight fungus — that helps infected trees recover. And, Fulbright says, the Japanese-European hybrid recovers best.
“Why grow smaller American chestnuts on trees that are more susceptible to blight,” he asks, “when the resilient hybrids produce nuts that are three or four times larger, and equally or more tasty?”
That’s exactly why Mike La Fever, an orchardist in Fenton, is growing 300 of the Colossals. La Fever harvests some of the chestnuts himself — his yield has been as high as 8,000 pounds in a good year — but also operates his orchard primarily “u-pick” style for those who like to gather their own produce.
“The big benefit for me is that I’ve gotten in with the Asian community, in particular the Japanese community in the Detroit area,” says La Fever, who notes that chestnuts are used in traditional Japanese, Chinese, and Korean dishes. He had already gotten calls from repeat Asian-American customers at the beginning of September.
Not so fast, though. Chestnuts rely on September rains for their final burst of growth, and fall to the ground in October. Then it’s best to store them for a few weeks at 30 degrees Fahrenheit to let their natural starches turn to sugar. After that, they should be good through January if stored properly.
“By the time they start going out to the stores in November, they’re going to be as sweet as can be,” says Fulbright.
The MSU professor learned the best way to cure and store chestnuts through trial and error with the 32 orchardists of the statewide cooperative known as Chestnut Growers Inc. (CGI).
CGI President Roger Blackwell of Milford says chestnuts are on a roll in Michigan. Members harvested 80,000 pounds of chestnuts in 2013, compared to the 2,000 pounds they took to market in 2001 when the organization started. Blackwell, who has an 800-tree orchard near Rothbury, says the group’s yield could top 100,000 pounds in a couple more years.
“The cooperative is small but has a big impact,” says MSU’s Fulbright.
That impact is partly because the CGI retails its members’ chestnuts. In season, they’re available fresh, but quantities are also frozen and freeze-dried, and milled into flour. In addition to farmers markets in Detroit and Royal Oak, shoppers can look for CGI’s fresh chestnuts at area Whole Foods, Vince & Joe’s Gourmet, and Hiller’s markets.
The cooperative also invested in a chestnut-peeling machine and, with help from MSU at its Rogers Reserve agricultural research station near Jackson, has tinkered with the best way to process the fruit to preserve flavor and make it easy to use year-round by home cooks, chefs, and beer brewers.
One chef who’s passionate about chestnuts and is impressed with the Michigan crop is Rodger Bowser of Zingerman’s Delicatessen in Ann Arbor.
“It’s something we’ve been trying to get in the Michigan diet for a while,” he says. “It’s a wonderful Michigan product and it doesn’t get enough use.”
Bowser, who’s also a managing partner at Zingerman’s, estimates he’s been using CGI chestnuts for almost a decade. He buys 20 pounds of flour and up to 80 pounds of the peeled fruit from the cooperative each year to use in gnocchi and cream of chestnut soup. The deli also sells fresh chestnuts for customers to take home, which Bowser promotes by setting up a roasting station outside of the building the day before Thanksgiving.
He’s also tried for many years to get Zingerman’s Bakehouse to bake chestnut bread; coincidentally, the day before his interview for this story, he taste-tested a loaf. But finding a Zingerman’s chestnut loaf on store shelves is still probably a long way off, he says.
“If we can get a sandwich on chestnut bread [in Zingerman’s deli], then we’ll have achieved greatness,” Bowser says.
Not too far away from where Bowser ties on his apron, some of the cooperative members’ chestnuts go to Dexter’s Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, which exploits their low-fat, high-carb qualities for two different brews.
Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin’s founder and brewmaster, says the chestnut is “pretty good for brewing beer because it has a lot of starch.”
This fall, Jeffries plans to release 200 barrels of a special brew called Fuego del Otono (Autumn Fire) into stores nationwide. The ale has star anise and cinnamon in it, as well as chestnuts.
He also uses chestnuts in a Belgian-style India pale ale, Belipago, to serve year-round at his on-site taproom in Dexter and at Jolly Pumpkin Café & Brewery in Ann Arbor. Because Belipago is brewed with chestnuts instead of malted barley, it’s gluten-free.
The chestnut is gaining fans due to its gluten-free status and other healthful qualities — some call it a superfood — and its versatility in the kitchen.
But just about everyone interviewed for this story noted that Michigan’s industry wouldn’t be where it is today without MSU’s Fulbright.
“He’s the man,” says Zingerman’s Bowser. “He probably knows more about chestnuts than anyone else on the planet.”
A word of caution: Score chestnuts with a sharp knife before cooking to let the steam escape. Otherwise, they may burst or explode.
- Open fire (or stovetop): Put scored whole nuts in a pan and keep in constant motion for 15-20 minutes.
- Conventional oven: Place a small pan of water in the oven to keep the nuts moist. Heat oven to 300-325 degrees. Bake nuts on a cookie sheet for about 15-20 minutes.
Kelly’s Spiced Chestnuts
½ cup egg whites
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon ground ginger
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups peeled, raw chestnuts
Directions: Whip egg whites until four times original volume; add all spices and mix well. Toss nuts in egg-white mixture until well coated. Let drain in a colander for 10 minutes. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and bake at 375 degrees for 10-15 minutes or until nuts are golden.
Recipe courtesy of the Chestnut Growers Inc./Tom Kelly, Hattie’s Grill, Suttons Bay
Chestnut Torte (Yields one 6-inch cake)
1/3 cup sugar
½ cup water
½ cup chestnut flour
Directions: Combine sugar and water in saucepan and bring to a full boil. Remove from heat and add flour. Stir until smooth. Allow to cool completely. Puree should be thick and firm.
3 tablespoons cake flour
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
3 eggs (3 whites, 2 yolks)
¼ cup sugar
¾ cup chestnut puree
Directions: Preheat oven to 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Sift flour and salt together and set aside. Separate egg whites from yolks into clean containers. Place three whites into a bowl and mix on medium speed until frothy. Add sugar on low speed until incorporated. Increase to high speed and whip until whites are stiff peaks. Set aside. Place two yolks in a mixing bowl with the chestnut puree and whip on high speed, scraping as necessary, until the mixture lightens in color and thickens. Fold one third of the whipped whites into the chestnut mixture. Alternate folding in half of the dry ingredients with half of the remaining whites in two rounds, ending with the whites. Do not overmix. Transfer batter to an unlined, unsprayed 6-inch-by-2-inch round cake pan and smooth the top. Place on a sheet tray and bake at 350 degrees for about 28 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the cake springs back when you press on the center. Turn upside down immediately after removing from oven, and cool in that position. Once fully cooled, run spatula around the edge of the cake.Tap the pan upside down against the countertop until cake releases from the pan. Decorate with the chestnut cream a few hours before serving.
1 cup heavy cream
¼ cup chestnut puree
Directions: Place cream and puree in a bowl and whip until you have stiff peaks. Split the cake layer in half horizontally using a serrated knife. Place bottom layer on serving dish, fill with half of the chestnut cream, and place other layer on top. Decorate top with the remaining chestnut cream and serve immediately.
Recipe courtesy of Rodger Bowser, Zingerman’s Delicatessen, Ann Arbor