Cheering on chestnuts: Farm family produces more than holiday traditions
Nov./Dec. 2010 California Country magazine
Story and photos by Ching Lee
Called "the grain on the tree," these nuts are good roasted, boiled, raw, or dried and ground up to make flour.
Placer County farmers Tim and Rhonda Boughton began growing chestnuts 30 years ago to try to capture a niche market. Their farm, which operates as a U-pick part of the year, is one of only a few in the state that grows the uncommon crop commercially.
Even though Nat King Cole croons about them every Christmas, many Americans would be hard-pressed to remember ever eating chestnuts, let alone roasting them on an open fire.
That is, unless they've been to Tim and Rhonda Boughton's farm in Placer County. It is one of only a small number of commercial farms in California that's actually growing the underappreciated nut, which continues to pique the fascination of visitors to the farm.
"When we're doing school tours with the kids, they're always surprised by how chestnuts are grown," said Rhonda Boughton. "They're like, 'They grow in those?'"
The nut, with its smooth, leathery shell, is encased in a spiny pod called a burr, which naturally drops to the ground in the fall when the nuts are mature and ready for picking. During school tours, Tim Boughton roasts the nuts right in the orchard to allow the children to smell and taste what they'd only been singing about every winter holiday.
It is a rare treat because California-grown chestnuts, especially those fresh off the tree, are not easy to come by and already out of season by the time Jack Frost is nipping at your nose. In fact, the majority of chestnuts sold during Christmastime are European imports, most likely from Italy, said Paul Vossen, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor.
Chestnuts are encased in spiny pods called burrs and they naturally fall from the tree when the nuts are mature and ready for picking
That doesn't mean chestnuts from the Golden State are not available for year-end festivities. The Boughtons continue to sell their chestnuts, which are kept in cold storage, throughout the holiday season at farmers markets and through mail order.
The state's chestnut production occurs mostly on smaller farms, such as the Boughtons' Amber Oaks Raspberries, which grows some 100 different varieties of fruits and vegetables and operates as a U-pick part of the year—where customers themselves harvest the crop.
Tim Boughton said he decided to grow chestnuts because it wasn't a common crop and he thought he could capture a niche.
Tim Boughton shows a whole chestnut, the inside of a fresh chestnut and the nutmeat after it’s been roasted.
"We planted the trees in 1980 because chestnuts had had so much disease back East and were dying," he said. "We thought we might have a market growing them here and shipping them back there."
Native chestnut trees, called the American chestnut, once thrived on the North American continent, but they are effectively extinct today. At one time, they covered about 200 million acres, or nearly one-third, of eastern forests from Maine to Georgia and as far west as Michigan and Louisiana, Vossen said.
Roasted chestnuts have a slightly sweet, mild taste.
Then, around the turn of the last century, a fungal disease, most likely introduced into this country by infected chestnut logs imported from China, swept through the forest and killed virtually every chestnut tree in the United States—an estimated 4 billion of them, according to the American Chestnut Foundation.
By 1950, the American chestnut was all but obliterated. The fungal blight doesn't actually kill the tree's roots though, so today, millions of sprouts produced by the original trees still exist, mostly in forest areas. But very few of them survive long enough to produce chestnuts because the new sprouts eventually become infected with the disease.
Prized for their timber, American chestnut trees grew straight, and often branch-free, reaching heights of more than 100 feet, with trunks 3 to 5 feet in diameter.
Although the nuts themselves are smaller than European, Japanese or Chinese varieties, Vossen said American chestnuts are not only known as being a good-tasting nut but also provided an important food source and habitat for wildlife. Their destruction by blight therefore ended a way of life that depended on a single tree species for many important uses, he said.
"It was one of the worst ecological disasters in the history of mankind," Vossen said.
Today, most of the commercial chestnuts grown in the state are of the Colossal variety, a European and Japanese hybrid that is less susceptible to blight and produces very large, sweet nuts.
During school tours of the farm, children smell and taste roasted chestnuts.
California's chestnut crop actually comes into season in mid-September through October. That's earlier than the foreign nuts, giving local growers an edge over imports, which usually reach the U.S. market in November and December.
Because there is currently not a main buyer for chestnuts in the state, Vossen said growers such as the Boughtons must find their own direct-market outlets to sell their nuts. This marketing challenge has prevented chestnuts from becoming a more mainstream crop, even though California's dry climate is well-suited for growing them.
Boughton, who grows the Colossal, said California chestnuts are catching on as more people become aware of them. He said people who grew up with them, such as Europeans and those from the East Coast, are always delighted to find them on his farm.
"There is definitely a demand for them—and not just at Christmas or the holidays," he said. "I've introduced them to lots and lots of people who use them on a regular basis now."
High in fiber and carbohydrates with just a trace of fat and no cholesterol, chestnuts hardly resemble their tree nut cousins at all. Nutritionally, they are actually similar to other starchy foods such as potatoes, rice or cereal.
"They call it the grain on the tree," Vossen said.
The nut itself is flavorful and sweet, although removing it from the shell can be difficult. Whether they are roasted or boiled, Rhonda Boughton said the best way to extract the nutmeat is to peel the shell when the nut is still hot. Once cooled, the inner membrane that adheres to the nut, called a pellicle, is much harder to get off.
"When you eat them raw, you have to whittle all that skin off, but they're really good that way too," she said. "It just takes a little bit more work eating them raw, but they're sweet and crunchy."
Unlike other nuts, which are dried, chestnuts are usually sold fresh and must be stored as a perishable food, like other fruits and vegetables. Chestnuts can also be dried and ground up to make flour.
To store fresh chestnuts, Rhonda Boughton recommends putting them in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel to keep the nuts moist. They can be kept in the refrigerator that way for two to three months, she said. The nuts can also be frozen, in their shells, in a container of water.
Ching Lee is a reporter for California Country. She can be reached at 800-698-FARM or email@example.com.