Chestnuts: An American Classic Returns

Chestnuts: An American Classic Returns

by Leslie Coons

A New York couple branching out in their fine-foods business is helping reintroduce an American culinary classic.

Hudson Valley residents Bill and Carol Polak are growing a stand of trees directly related to the American chestnut, which was virtually wiped out by disease earlier this century.

The trees are so productive the Polaks have started selling the sweet, tasty nuts to restaurants, offering diners in Manhattan and upstate New York a freshly picked alternative to chestnuts imported from Asia and Europe.

Chestnuts, which unlike most nuts are very low in fat, are growing in popularity among those in culinary circles. They can be found in markets starting in late fall.

"We are always looking for something to do on the land, to help us later on, for our retirement or as a nest egg," Bill says. "Chestnuts are very exclusive. There's only a handful of people (growing) them in the United States."

The American chestnut, a member of the beech family, once was one of the most common trees found in the eastern hardwood forests and an important food and lumber crop. However, starting in 1904, virtually all American chestnuts were killed by chestnut blight, a disease caused by a fungus accidentally introduced from Asia.

The overwhelming bulk of chestnuts now sold in the United States come from growers in Europe, Japan and China, where different varieties of blight-resistant chestnut trees exist. According to information from one commercial grower, the United States imports $20 million worth of chestnuts annually from Europe alone to supply culinary demand.

The Polaks believe many of the imported chestnuts they've sampled are of inferior quality compared to the American-grown product produced at their Valentine Farm.

"These taste the way I remember a good chestnut tastes," says Bill, who is among an exclusive group of growers in the United States tending a new type of American chestnut tree.

Known as the Dunstan hybrid chestnuts, the patented trees are the result of the 1950s discovery in Ohio of an American chestnut tree not affected by the blight, and subsequent crossings with Chinese trees by plant breeder Dr. Robert Dunstan of Greensboro, N.C. The resulting cultivars were grafted onto Chinese chestnut rootstocks and moved to north central Florida.

The Polaks learned about the Dunstan chestnuts through a newspaper article about a Florida nursery producing the trees, wrote the grower and ended up buying 20 of the year-old trees in 1991.

Because their Hyde Park farm is on the border of the temperate zone in which the chestnuts can survive, the Polaks lost some of their trees to freezes. But 14, some as tall as 30 feet, now grow in a fenced area on their six-acre property.

Their stand is small enough to still warrant a hand-picked harvest.

"We go out and actually shake the trees," Bill says, pointing out the bright green pods that enclose the trees' nutty treasures.

Carol adds they first make sure to mow the grass under their trees so they can more easily gather the hard spiky pods, which are so sharp the couple must wear heavy leather gloves to extract the shiny, dark brown nuts.

The Polaks also have a growing business, Sweet Heat (www.hotpepperjam.com), producing hot pepper and fruit jams to sell at area farm markets and through mail order.

As they pondered what type of marketable food product they could make with the chestnuts, their son Christopher, a chef in Manhattan, suggested they just sell them directly to restaurants.

They started with his in 1997, and expanded to several customers the next year. Now they sell to a number of New York-area restaurants.

Chefs savor the Dunstan chestnut, which is larger than either the Chinese or the European chestnut, and has several attractive characteristics for cooking, according to the Polaks.

"The inner skin comes off easily and it's very sweet," Bill says.

The sweet nuts can be roasted, boiled, steamed, pureed and candied. They are eaten as a snack, added to traditional holiday dressings, simmered in stock or milk to accompany rich meat dishes, or added to soups, stews, breads and vegetables.

Chestnuts also are featured as fillings or garnishes in desserts, especially in French and Italian kitchens, and when candied they're a treat in the winter months.

"They can even be dried and turned into flour," Carol says. "They also store fairly well, for six months in the crisper."

Leslie Coons writes about herbs, kitchen gardening and food in general. She's also the editor of www.HudsonValleyGardens.com and the author of Fast, Easy Ways to Use Culinary Herbs, which is available through that site.

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