I am looking forward to a day shortly after Christmas with Nat King Cole murmuring about chestnuts roasting over an open fire, the presents have all opened, and the Christmas feast prepared and devoured – chestnut stuffing and all. A cozy celebration with family and friends is on my wish list. Roasted chestnuts the stars of the holidays.
The American chestnut was once one of the dominant species of the Eastern US forest. The pre-blight tree population numbered in the millions. This large, deciduous tree was economically significant, providing beautiful light, strong wood for construction and decoration, medicines for cough, chaffing, heart trouble, and sweet, edible nuts.
In 1904, a chestnut blight fungus was introduced in New York from China on non-native chestnut species trees. The blight was first discovered on trees at the Bronx Zoo. Until the early 20th century, these trees were abundant and sturdy. By 1950, very few massive old-growth trees were left; most of the old trees were destroyed to the ground. Stumps of the pre-blight tree can still be found in the native range. It is common for the stumps to sprout, though few sprouts live long enough to produce the desirable chestnut fruit.
Today, hybrid chestnut trees have been developed through cooperation between The American Chestnut Foundation, USDA, and university-based breeding programs. The hybrids have some resistance to the blight fungus and may bring the chestnut back. Though chestnuts are not a good choice for Treasure Coast landscapes, we don’t have enough cold; it warms my heart to know these majestic trees will grace the American landscape once again.
Chestnuts can be found at local grocery stores and green markets, and roasted Chestnuts are the stars of the holiday gatherings. My favorite way to roast chestnuts is on top of the stove with Granny Cloud’s old cast iron skillet. Start with about 1.5 to 2 pounds of chestnuts. Clean and make an X with a sharp paring knife in the nut’s skin. Toss in a bowl with about 1 teaspoon light oil. Heat a dry heavy skillet with a lid over moderate to low heat until hot. Add the chestnuts and roast, often stirring for 15 minutes. Add ¼ cup of water and cover the pan to steam the nuts. Stir occasionally until the water is gone and the chestnuts tender. Make roasted Chestnuts the stars of the holidays.
This article first appeared in the Treasure Coast Newspapers.