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For chestnut lovers, now's the time

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By Anne Glusker
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, November 2, 2010; 10:27 AM

I've always thought of chestnuts as not just an autumn-into-winter dish, but a special-occasion dish. I remember my mother commandeering the kitchen table in the days before Thanksgiving, presiding over an army of knife-wielding conscripts who made X after X in the bottoms of fresh chestnuts so they would eventually yield their tough shell and reveal the chewy, meaty, toasty nut. In other words: tedious work, worth it maybe once or twice a year.

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But then I moved to Europe for a few years, and in the small French town where I lived, casual Sunday walks involving chestnut gathering were a common fall weekend pursuit along with mushroom forays and truffle hunting, in the same way that Washingtonians might hike the Billy Goat Trail or go leaf-peeping at Old Rag.

Lucy Vanel, an American living in the French city of Lyon, gathers chestnuts with her family in the rustic countryside of the Haute-Savoie region. "I take a pair of kitchen tongs and a basket, and it fills up in no time," said Vanel, 43, whose Lucy's Kitchen Notebook blog is at kitchen-notebook.blogspot.com. Her favorite chestnut dish combines the nuts with cream and bacon, a riff on a dish she ate while living in Beijing that "haunted me for years."

When he was growing up in the Lombardy region of Italy, Stefano Frigerio frequently headed to the forest near his family's house in the fall to harvest nuts from more than two dozen chestnut trees. "We must have picked 20 to 30 pounds every time we went out," said Frigerio, 37. "We'd roast them in a cast-iron pot with holes, but it didn't have a long handle, so we had a lot of burned hands. We'd eat them right away but keep about half of them for Christmas."

The centerpiece of the holiday meal was usually a roast capon, and the chestnuts would be roasted with garlic and rosemary as a side dish, with some of the capon's juices poured over them. Those memories stoke his imagination as Frigerio, now a chef and the owner of Copper Pot Food Co., makes a hearty chestnut-sausage soup that he sells at Washington area farmers markets. At home in Ashburn, he roasts chestnuts and eats them with his wife and children while watching a movie: "Like popcorn," he says.

One reason most of us don't have Euro-style chestnut memories is that the American chestnut was decimated by blight beginning around the turn of the last century. The vast majority of chestnuts available in American supermarkets are imported from overseas. About half come from Korea and China, the other half from Italy. (To make matters more complicated, although the chestnuts grown in China are a Chinese variety and the ones from Italy are a European variety, those grown in Korea are a Japanese variety.)

The ghost of an all-but-vanished tree lingers in the minds of some who remember their grandparents talking about the majestic chestnuts that populated the forest canopy along the Eastern seaboard, from Maine down through Georgia and Alabama. Until 1900, just before the blight hit, every fourth tree in the Appalachians was a chestnut, and the nuts fed a subsistence economy in that area. Chestnuts picked by foragers were shipped to cities by the boxcarload.

Virtually all of the chestnuts grown domestically in the United States are the Chinese variety; those are what you're likely to find at farmers markets. (A small chestnut industry has grown up on the West Coast in recent years, and those chestnuts are either a European variety or a European-Japanese hybrid.) People who claim their chestnuts are from pure American trees either are mistaken or have collected their nuts from one of the rare American chestnut trees that have survived, usually in isolated areas. Toigo Orchards in Shippensburg, Pa., says its nuts are from very old trees on the property that are believed to predate the blight. And chef Patrick O'Connell says land at his Inn at Little Washington in Virginia shelters some American chestnut trees, whose nuts he cooks with.

Eventually, if the American Chestnut Foundation succeeds in its efforts, the tree will reclaim its place in U.S. forests. At the group's research farms, scientists are busy cross-breeding surviving American trees with Chinese trees. The goal: a tree that's mostly American chestnut, but with enough Chinese chestnut in its bloodlines to resist blight.

At the foundation's annual meeting in Shepherdstown, W.Va., in mid-October, 180 horticulturists, breeders, plant pathologists and chestnut aficionados discussed breeding techniques and exchanged anecdotes. The reintroduction effort is at the end of its second growing season, so it is still too early to know what the outcome will be. "We'll need a good long time to see if we can create a blight-resistant tree," said Meghan Jordan, the foundation's communications director.

In the meantime, something of a chestnut cult exists in the Washington area, with small farmers cultivating Chinese chestnuts, bringing them to area farmers markets and selling some of their small production to a few restaurants. Frigerio is a big fan of Kuhn Orchards' chestnuts, insisting that they are uncommonly sweet.

The Kuhn family, whose farm is in Adams County, Pa., eight miles west of Gettysburg, originally grew just peaches and apples. Sidney Kuhn explains that the chestnut trees on the farm were planted 40 or 50 years ago by her grandfather's brother-in-law, and recent generations of Kuhns have largely ignored them, except for their own personal roasting and cooking pleasure. "But about 15 years ago, when we started going to farmers markets, we realized that the chestnuts were such a valuable thing: another thing we can have on the stand, a way we can extend our season," she said.


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