Monday, October 17, 2011

Tales From A Missouri Chestnut Grove

Twenty years ago a crooked, dying tree caught my mother’s attention. The shape intrigued her as did the unfamiliar green pods with fine sharp needles. Her curiosity drove her to the Missouri Conservation Department where a tree specialist determined that it was an American Chestnut tree--and a rare survivor in the state due to the great Chestnut tree plague that killed over 3 billion trees in the first half of the twentieth century. My parents worked with the department to use the tree’s nut for a grafting project. Their dedication and tedious labor resulted in about 35 nutgrafts; 29 survived. These nutgrafts grew a couple of feet the first year and required some staking to force upright growth but now form a Chestnut grove of trees that are prolific bearers of nuts enjoyed by both humans and wildlife. 
A good Chestnut harvest requires daily wrestles with the squirrel population for just-fallen pods. During the month I wandered through the grove, my eyes peeling the pasture’s floor for the green or velvet tan spiny burrs. Chestnut burrs should be picked up with thick work gloves as the needles will stick in the skin making it almost impossible to gather the burrs barehanded. Ideally the pods brown on the branch and fall to the ground and are gathered before getting squirreled away. If the burr is on the ground, I roll it with my foot to see if i beat the critters. If intact, the pod goes in a bucket, sometimes coming home full, other times just a few burrs. 

Each burr contains three plump Chestnuts, making each one an important find. Toward the end of the harvest, I climbed the trees and shook the upper limbs, catapulting the remaining pods to the ground. The final climb is my favorite part of the harvest season. It releases my inner monkey child and allows my body to succumb to muscle memory from my youth.

Last year we were spoiled by a bumper crop that did not repeat itself this fall (cicadas and the drought paid their toll on many trees and gardens). Even though we can’t sell the surplus to the farmer’s market or give bags to friends this year, my Chestnuts will still be roasting over an open fire this winter. If you see some Chestnuts at the market or successfully talk me out of some of mine, give this a try. The aroma alone will draw your friends and neighbors from blocks away.
Roasted Chestnuts
  1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Clean Chestnuts.
  3. Use a sharp paring knife to cut an X into one side of each nut. This keeps the Chestnuts from exploding in the oven.
  4. Arrange Chestnuts on a baking sheet or in a shallow pan, with the cut or pricked sides up.
  5. Roast in oven for 15 to 25 minutes, or until nuts are tender and easy to peel.
  6. Peel the nuts when they are cool enough to handle but still warm, and enjoy.
Removing Chestnuts from Burrs
A Day's Work Ready for the Open Fire

1 comment:

  1. So interesting! The things I learn on your blog. LOVE IT! Thanks for sharing! ~Carly