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Holiday treat a staple at Central Valley farm

What food is so versatile that it can be found in soups, salads, main dishes or combined with meat or used in a dessert?



What food is so versatile that it can be found in soups, salads, main dishes or combined with meat or used in a dessert? What food can be found in a fancy appetizer or in a simple snack? What is this adaptable food? It's the chestnut.

No mention of chestnuts would be complete without thinking of them "roasting on an open fire" as the famous Christmas song proclaims. But the little nuts are big business for Lucienne Grunder, who runs the Owl Creek Ranch in Stanislaus County. If you want to get to the heart of chestnut production in the Golden State, look no farther than Lucienne. Her ranch is the biggest in the United States, with more than 9,000 chestnut trees. All steps of production can be found at the ranch, including a nursery for new seedlings. The nuts are first harvested by mechanical shakers, very similar to how walnuts or almonds are harvested. They are then collected and sent off to another part of the ranch where the hulls are removed.

Despite the instant recognition of the phrase "chestnuts roasting on an open fire," Lucienne dispels the notion that that is the best way to eat them. She says they are much better when added to a stew or cooked into a dessert.

No matter how they are being eaten, research is showing that people are enjoying them. Lucienne attributes the growing popularity to the fact that more vegetarians are eating the nuts because of all of their healthful qualities, including the fact that they're very low in fat and high in protein. In addition, people with food allergies are starting to use more and more chestnut flour as a substitute in certain dishes.

Whatever the reason for their spike in popularity, chestnuts are starting to become a big business in the state. That's good news for Lucienne, who has learned she has to be a good seller almost as much as a good producer of the product. As Lucienne says, there's no better way to sell your product than "to make a lot of noise about it."


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