The chestnut has a long history in North America, encompassing everything from pop culture references to the tragic demise of the American Chestnut tree. Until the middle of the 20th century, the American Chestnut tree reigned as the “Redwood of the East.” Towering 150 feet above the forest floor, it was used for lumber and chestnut production. But kingdoms often fall, and the American Chestnut met its fearsome and debilitating foe in the form of Cryphonectria parasitica, a terribly ferocious blight. The blight left the American Chestnut stunted, reliant upon North American researchers as its salvation.
Fortunately, researchers have answered the plight of the American Chestnut, and efforts by those at the United States Forest Service and the American Chestnut Foundation have yielded optimistic results. These organizations are working to develop blight-resistant American Chestnut tree hybrids. And, though there is a long journey ahead for new American chestnut hybrids (trees take years to mature), the road seems filled with mostly blue skies.
Aside from the American Chestnut tree, other varieties of chestnuts can be cultivated in the United States. The Center for Agroforestry at the University of Missouri cultivates Chinese chestnut trees, and hosts an annual Chestnut Roast every fall to celebrate the harvest. This is good news for chestnut consumers, who dream of “chestnuts roasted on an open fire” throughout the holiday season. But efforts at the Center for Agroforestry to cultivate the chestnut aren’t commonplace in the Midwest, nor apparently the rest of the country. In 2008, U.S. chestnut production was less than 1% of the global production, and most domestic chestnuts were grown in California, Florida, Michigan, Ohio and Oregon (Warmund, 2011). This low domestic chestnut production is starkly different from the era of the American Chestnut prior to the 1950s, and could be due to a small U.S. market for year-round chestnut products. After all, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” really only spark the appetite of consumers 2-3 months of the year.
Though certain obstacles exist for those who want to profitably cultivate the chestnut, they present excellent opportunities for innovation and creativity. One of these opportunities lies in creating delicious value-added products to support North American chestnut farmers and entice would-be chestNuts (loyal consumers). Developed countries across the globe have seen a significant boom in the market of non-dairy and gluten free alternatives – with mass produced non-dairy milks, nut and vegetable starch cheese substitutes, non-dairy yogurts and ice creams, gluten-free flours and baking mixes – and vegetarian meat alternatives. And though many of these products rely on almonds, soybeans, cashews, coconuts, potato and tapioca starches, local-food lovers in the Midwest could feel wonderfully connected to a dairy/gluten/meat-free alternative made from locally grown chestnuts. Isn’t that a lovely, slow-foodie’s dream?
So, besides creating potentially delicious products, what are some other benefits of cultivating a local, Midwestern chestnut industry?
- Building long-term, perennial agroforestry systems that can promote conservation agriculture practices (such as cover-cropping, biodiversity, and minimal till systems) and overall soil health. Chestnut trees require several years of growth before they begin producing large quantities of nuts. These start-up years are an excellent time for farmers to practice inter-cropping and other agroforestry practices: planting annual vegetables, commodity crops, animal forage or beneficial native cover crops between the rows of chestnut trees. These practices can continue, to some extent, once the chestnuts begin their production.
- Diversifying farm outputs, and generating more income for farmers. Chestnuts sell at $4-7 per pound (UMCA). Plus, if you’re growing chestnuts in an agroforestry setting, you’ll likely be growing other profitable crops as well, increasing your market-base and providing more profits. And if farmers decide to make the value-added products themselves, they should generate even more on-farm income, and make their business resilient in the face of extreme weather events.
- Producing an alternative to the use of almonds, soybeans, cashews and coconut milk for many of the non-dairy alternatives. If you’re avoiding dairy in the Midwest, as I am, and you’re conscious of the water situation in California’s agricultural system, you wince every time you buy almond milk at the supermarket. Buying a locally produced nut milk would greatly support my conscience.
- Fostering entrepreneurship and creativity in rural areas of the Midwest.
Other benefits to this sort of endeavor are waiting to be explored. And certainly, there are obstacles and challenges to overcome and consider as well. But for now, we’ll entertain this dream and make some chestnut milk.
I wanted to test this idea on the person with the best tastebuds out there: me. Living in Missouri and working at the Center for Agroforestry last fall, it was easy to get my hands on some chestnuts. Chestnuts are one of those incredibly odd crops that could have been invented in a science fiction novel. Their spiky green husks are formidable and alien-esque. I ventured out the orchard to harvest some, pulling on my gloves and enjoying the cool, autumn evening air. I felt like I was picking up adult Easter eggs – spiky, pointy treasures inspiring thoughts of cozy fires and large armchairs. It was hard to stop harvesting them and rob myself of more fun, but my bursting bag compelled me to quit.
I intended to make two batches of the milk. One batch would be made with raw chestnuts, and the other with roasted chestnuts. I was interested in how the roasting process might impact the resulting flavor and texture profiles. I stored the chestnuts in a brown paper bag in my fridge until I was ready to use them – they store quite well for weeks, and even months! Then, I set out by peeling about two cups of raw chestnuts (a time consuming process), and rinsing them thoroughly before covering them with water and allowing them to soak. I’ve made walnut milk in the past, and usually I allow the walnuts to soak for up to 24 hours. The idea is to end up with a soft and pliable nut that can be easily pulped in the blender with water. Unfortunately, my raw chestnuts were so hardy that after two days of soaking they felt the same as when I had originally started soaking them. For want of protecting my blender, I decided to pitch this idea of blending the raw chestnuts. I’d like to try this again in the future to see if I get similar results – and perhaps think of other ways to soften the raw nuts before they are blended. Maybe I’ll feel more courageous and faithful in my blender’s capacity for handling hardy things. In any case, stay tuned.
While the raw chestnut setback was disheartening, I pushed onward and began the process of making the roasted chestnut milk. I started by rinsing the nuts, letting them dry, and then slicing them from top to bottom, so that each nut had a seam to prevent them from exploding while they roasted. There are multiple ways to roast chestnuts, but I opted for the quick and easy microwave method. I placed the chestnuts in the microwave for 3-minute intervals, until they began to smell delicious and were bursting from the peels. Once ready, the chestnuts were allowed to cool, then peeled and added to the blender. With the chestnuts I poured in about 3 cups of water (using a 3:1 water to chestnut ratio as a baseline), added a dash of salt, and some honey and vanilla. The mixture was blended for a few minutes, until I could see that the chestnuts had broken down and the mixture was thick and creamy. Then, using a fine mesh strainer, I poured the milk into a mason jar and set the solid pulp aside.
The final product reminded me a lot of Horchata – a drink of Spanish origins made from rice, nuts, seeds or barley. The taste was a subtle, hearty roasting, and the texture was thick, but smooth. I regretfully added a bit too much vanilla, so that was somewhat overpowering. You can, indeed, add too much vanilla extract – an important life lesson. I stored the milk in a mason jar in the fridge and kept it there for up to two weeks to see how quickly it spoiled. Even after two weeks it smelled good and looked normal, though I didn’t try it at that point – so adventurers be warned and maybe don’t try this at home? Another note about its texture: the milk separated in the fridge, but a little shake homogenized it once again.
The final verdict: I couldn’t drink a lot of this milk. Though it would definitely be delicious on a cold evening in a small glass, it isn’t the refreshing milk alternative I would want to pour in my coffee or over my cereal. It might be delicious to cook with, though, perhaps to use in soups or baked goods. And the pulp might prove an excellent addition to these things and more, as well.
Though the chestnut milk didn’t make my “everyday delicious staple foods” list, it certainly intrigued me. How would chestnut fair as a base for a “cheeze” alternative? Does it have beneficial topical/medicinal properties for use in health and beauty products? It may also make an excellent gluten-free flour, with the right tools. Furthermore, what other Midwestern perennial crops have the potential to make some outstanding value-added alternatives? Black walnuts and pecans seem like excellent places to start…
Do you have any recommendations for other recipes to try? What other perennial crops have value-added markets that are untapped? Thank you for reading this post, and please send your ideas and comments my way.