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Chestnuts: How one tree wiped out an industry

Few food items are as linked to a holiday as are chestnuts.

I suppose the association began in 1946 when Nat Cole recorded The Christmas Song, with the verse,

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire Jack Frost nipping at your nose…”

However associated chestnuts have become with the holiday season, they have been a food source for 1,000’s of years, providing a sustainable and low fat source of fiber, vitamin C and Selenium, in fact, the Japanese grew chestnuts before they began cultivating rice. Today, chestnuts are still an integral part of daily diets in parts of Asia and southern Europe, and are used as a flour, baked into casseroles and stuffings/dressings, and of course in desserts.

The major cultivar, Castanea sativa, is now the dominant source of chestnut production, with China leading the way. However, that was not always the case, and in fact, up until the early 20th century, the United States was the leading producer with the native variety Castanea dentata. But that all changed.

The blight that destroyed an industry

In 1904, a fungus known as Chestnut Blight appeared in a tree in Long Island, New York. In a matter of forty years, close to 4 billion American chestnut trees were destroyed, creating what many have called the greatest ecological disaster to ever strike the world’s forests. The impact was economic as well as ecological, as the tress provided a sustainable food source for both humans and animals, as well as source for lumber that resisted rot. All is not lost, as the American Chestnut Foundation is making strides in bringing the native species of chestnut trees back to a viable level.

French culinary use

The chestnut itself has a slightly bitter and earthy flavor that is softened when it is roasted.  In France, the chestnut is elevated to a position of prestige with the traditional marron glace (candied chestnuts) and Mont Blanc desserts. Taking the humble chestnut to an almost other worldly level.

Chestnuts are an autumnal seasonal item. Contact your Marketing Associate about availability and adding them to your next order. If you are not a customer, find out how to become one today!

Article submission by Chef Daniel Snowden, the Director of Culinary Development for FreshPoint Central Florida. He has been in the produce industry years almost 20 years and loves getting geeky about food. Follow FreshPoint Central Florida on Facebook and Instagram.

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