Beyond the Open Fire

Boasting about half the calories and lowest fat content of all other main edible nuts, chestnuts create a state of delectable opportunity.

fresh peeled nutshellBy Ilene Wolff

Leave it to a crop scientist to find something good about Michigan’s erratic weather: The European/Japanese hybrid chestnut tree thrives in our climate.

The proliferation of the hybrid trees here has earned the Great Lakes State a peerless reputation for growing the largest, sweetest chestnuts on trees that are blight tolerant and produce the highest yields, says Dr. Dennis Fulbright, a plant pathologist and professor at Michigan State University. He’s studied chestnut trees for more than 30 years to find the best variety to grow in Michigan and estimates 15,000 of his favored European/Japanese hybrids can be found here.

“I think that our temperatures help create a somewhat stressed tree, which sometimes helps produce more sugar,” Fulbright says. “I’ve gone around the world eating chestnuts and ours are as sweet or sweeter than anyone else’s.”

Michigan has another advantage, he notes: This is the only state with enough naturally occurring bio-controls to thwart the chestnut fungus that, by the middle of the 20th century, all but killed off the American chestnut tree in the Eastern United States. The blight can affect any variety of chestnut tree, but Fulbright’s research has shown that Michigan’s bio-control — a virus that lives in the fungus — helps even infected trees recover. And, asserts the plant professor, it’s the Japanese/European hybrid that recovers best.

moss covered tree branchesSo why bother growing smaller American chestnuts on trees that are more susceptible to blight, when the resilient hybrids produce nuts that are three or four times larger, and equally or more tasty?

The Michigan chestnut growing industry has thrived on Fulbright’s research. Roger Blackwell, president of Chestnut Growers Inc., a statewide cooperative of 33 growers, says the state has more acres in production of the low-fat, gluten-free nut than any other in the union.

“It’s really not a nut,” corrects Blackwell, who oversees 800 chestnut trees near Rothbury. “It’s more of a fruit; they call it the grain that grows on trees.”

Members of Blackwell’s cooperative took 80,000 pounds of chestnuts to market last year, compared with 2,000 pounds 12 years ago when the organization started. He predicts their yield could easily top 100,000 pounds in just two more years.

“As a business,” he says, “we’re doing very well.”

So well, in fact, that the group owns the only commercial chestnut peeler in the Western Hemisphere, which it bought in the early 2000s. They use the nuts they process in the peeler to make flour and oven-dried chips. All of the chestnuts are cured for a few weeks at 30 degrees Fahrenheit to let their natural starches turn to sugar.

“By the time they start going out to the stores in November, they’re going to be as sweet as can be,” says MSU’s Fulbright. “Consumers then can store them through January.”

And thanks to a unique brew, even beer lovers can enjoy the taste of chestnuts.

whole chestnutsIn Dexter, Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales brews Belipago, a gluten-free Belgian-style India pale ale that substitutes chestnuts for malted barley, to serve in its on-site taproom as well as at its restaurants in Ann Arbor and Traverse City. The licensed microbrewery also sells a chestnut-containing beer in the fall nationwide that has star anise and cinnamon in it, Fuego del Otono.

“The chestnut flavor that comes out is like tarrow root meets cashew,” says Ron Jeffries, Jolly Pumpkin’s founder and brewmaster.

Jeffries adds that the chestnut’s low-fat content makes it ideal for beer.

“Fats can be troubling for head retention,” he explains. “Plus they oxidize (spoil) quickly.”

Now the question has become, where there are chestnut groves, could truffles be far behind? After all, in France the flavorful fruit of that subterranean fungus is usually found in chestnut groves. That’s why Paul Olson, chef at the Mission Table restaurant in Traverse City, suspects there must be truffles near the chestnut trees growing north of the city, on Old Mission Peninsula.

Fulbright isn’t aware of any wild truffles growing anywhere in North America, but he says MSU recently hired a mycologist (who studies fungi) to look at commercial growing of truffles and porcini mushrooms in Michigan. They may be the perfect companion crop.

Meanwhile, chestnut fans can enhance their enjoyment of autumn with the following recipes. For a bounty of others, visit

Freelance writer Ilene Wolff resides in Royal Oak.

chestnut hummus courtesy chestnut growers incChestnut Hummus
Recipe courtesy of Chestnut Growers Inc. “This appetizer pairs well with North Peak’s Nomad dry hard cider or a pinot noir,” notes Mission Table Chef Paul Olsen.

1 pound peeled chestnuts
1½ cups water½ cup lemon juice
2 large cloves garlic (pressed)
1 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
½ teaspoon ground cumin
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2-4 tablespoons pine nuts (to taste)
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley or cilantro
1 cup tahini (vegan sesame seed paste)
Dash of paprika

In a food processor or blender, process the lemon juice, garlic, salt, pepper, cumin, chopped fresh parsley or cilantro, pine nuts and at least ½ cup of water. Add chestnuts and continue blending, adding more water if needed, until smooth. Pour into bowl and stir in tahini. Serve with raw vegetables, crackers or warm wedges of grilled pita bread.

Braised Venison Shoulder with Chestnuts, Bacon and Oyster Mushrooms
Recipe courtesy of Mission Table Chef Paul Olson, Traverse City. Chef’s note: This pairs well with Jolly Pumpkin’s Fuego del Otono beer.

Yields: 6-8 small-plate portions

2 pounds local venison shoulder, cut into cubes
6 ounces smoked bacon, diced 6 ounces chestnuts, roasted, peeled and cut in half
8 ounces oyster mushrooms cut off base
1 Spanish onion, diced small
2 carrots, peeled, diced small
2 celery ribs, diced small
3 cloves garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1 cup red wine
1 quart venison stock or beef broth
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1 bay leaf
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Render bacon until crisp over low heat. Remove and set aside, but leave fat in pan. Sear venison in bacon fat over medium heat until brown, remove from pan and set aside with cooked bacon. Add carrot, onion, celery and caramelize for 4-5 minutes. Add garlic and mushrooms, cook 2 minutes over low heat. Add red wine, cook to reduce until almost dry. Remove all from pan and add butter to melt over medium heat.

Add flour to butter and make a roux. Cook, stirring, for 4-5 minutes (roux should look like wet sand). Add stock or broth, venison/veg mixture, thyme, bay leaf and chestnuts. Bring to a simmer, stirring constantly. Cover and put in a 275-degree oven. Braise until venison is tender, about 2 hours. When venison is tender, adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.

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