Bing Crosby sang “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” and when most of us think of eating chestnuts that’s exactly the image that comes to mind – a traditional Christmas scene with the decorated tree in the corner, robins hopping in the snow outside, and a line of chestnuts slowly grilling above the embers of burning logs.
In fact we associate roasted chestnuts with our Anglo-German Christmas traditions, but they’re eaten this way in most of the northern hemisphere. Go to Istanbul and you’ll see chestnut carts on the street; they’ve been eaten in France since at least the 16th century, and in Spain for even longer.
Chestnuts are nutritious – low in protein and fat, unlike other nuts, but a good source of carbs, especially starch; they contain about twice as much starch as potatoes. They’re also the only nut that contains Vitamin C.
Chestnuts – The All-Purpose Food
As well as simply roasting chestnuts there are many other ways to prepare them. They can be boiled, steamed, grilled or toasted. Sliced and steamed, they make a good side vegetable – especially if you can splash them in butter and salt. They can even be eaten raw, although unless they’re fully ripe they have a slightly bitter taste.In Hungary cooked chestnuts are pureed, mixed with sugar and rum, forced through a ricer, then topped with whipped cream to make a tasty dessert. The Swiss do something similar, mixing pureed chestnuts with kirsch and butter. In France and Germany they’re chopped and used to stuff poultry. The French also can the cooked chestnuts in sugar syrup.
Chestnut juice can be fermented into a beer, or the fermented juice can be boiled down to produce sugar. Juice from ripe nuts needs less fermentation; immature chestnuts are starchy, but as they ripen the starch is converted to natural sugars. Once the juice has been extracted the crushed nuts can be roasted and used as a coffee substitute. It’s a very useful and versatile nut.
From a prepper point of view, though, there’s something even better about chestnuts; they can be dried and ground into flour. It isn’t a cheap filler, either – something that can be used to bulk out real flour, but won’t work on its own. It’s not only possible to make bread and other baked goods from chestnut flour, but in some parts of the world it’s common. In Corsica, for example, chestnut flour is baked into bread and cakes, it’s used as a cornmeal substitute to make polenta, and it’s fried into donuts.Having an alternative source of flour is very useful. You probably have a lot in your food reserves, but it won’t last forever, and what are you going to do when it’s gone? Growing grain to make flour isn’t a simple process, and it will take up a lot of your time. There are wild grasses that can be turned into flour, but the yield is a small fraction of what you’ll get from domesticated wheat or rye. Chestnuts – large, easy to harvest and found in the wild – are potentially a very valuable source of flour that will keep you supplied with bread indefinitely. The flour also stores well, and so does bread baked with it; a loaf of chestnut bread will easily last two weeks without getting stale. Chestnut flour is also gluten-free.
The Blight Disaster
A hundred and twenty years ago the USA was awash in chestnuts. The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, was one of the most common trees in the country; in areas like the Appalachians the species accounted for a quarter of all hardwoods. Almost every house and barn east of the Mississippi was built with the American chestnut’s tough wood. Biologists estimate there were over three billion of the trees spread across the eastern states.
Then, in 1904, the chief forester at the Bronx Zoo discovered signs of chestnut blight on some of the zoo’s trees. Soon more outbreaks were found along the East Coast, and they were quickly traced to imported Japanese and Chinese chestnut trees, which were a popular import among gardeners. Chestnut blight is a fungal infection; the fungus eats the inner bark of affected trees, and works its way round the trunk in a ring. When the ring is complete, everything above it dies. By 1940 almost every American chestnut tree was dead.
However, as early as the 1930s people started working to rebuild populations of the tree. It isn’t easy, because the blight fungus can spread on the winds, but chestnut numbers are slowly rising again. Some original stands of chestnut survived, too, mostly in Michigan, Wisconsin and the Pacific Northwest. More recently scientists have created hybrid trees by breeding American chestnut with Asian varieties. Chinese and Japanese chestnut have evolved to cope with blight, so the disease rarely kills these trees, and properly bred hybrids inherit that resistance. There are also Asian and European chestnuts around, either in gardens or growing wild.
So while chestnut trees are nowhere near as numerous as they were at the start of last century, there are still enough of them around that they can be a valuable food resource in a crisis. There’s only one catch – you have just three months to harvest this year’s nuts.
Chestnuts produce distinctive fruit; each of the spiny green balls contains multiple nuts – usually three of them. These cases ripen from late summer through late fall, and when the first frosts hit they split open and fall from the trees. Gathering them at this time is ideal if you want to roast the nuts or ferment their juice; fully ripe chestnuts will yield slightly if you press them between finger and thumb, and you’ll feel a slight gap between the tough brown skin and the flesh inside. If you harvest them from the trees in early fall the nuts will be firmer, with no gap, and almost impossible to squeeze; this is the time to collect them if you want to make the best quality flour.
Related: How to Make Acorn Flour
Where Can You Find Chestnuts?
So, where can you find chestnut trees? The first thing to do is to learn to recognize them. The American chestnut is a large tree, 50 to 100 feet tall, and usually has a straight trunk. It also has distinctive leaves, which are the classic leaf shape, quite narrow and with serrated edges. From late spring it produces numerous flowers in the shape of pale green catkins up to eight inches long; later the nut cases start to grow at the base of the catkins.
The native range of the American chestnut runs from Maine to northern Florida, but humans have transplanted the tree all across the US in any area where hardwoods grow. If that hadn’t happened the species would probably be extinct – the blight fungus spores can travel six or seven miles on the wind, so isolated groups of trees outside their natural range have a better chance of survival.
One area with some large American chestnuts is Michigan, where hundreds of mature trees can be found in several places. There are more in Sherwood, Oregon, where the climate protects them against the fungus. Other pockets of healthy trees are scattered across the West.
The Chinese chestnut is a smaller tree, rarely growing past 70 feet; apart from that it’s similar to the American chestnut, but can be recognized by the hairy tips of its twigs – American trees have hairless tips.
Since the blight many Chinese chestnuts have been planted for commercial production of nuts (but not of timber – its wood is far inferior to American chestnut), and there are many orchards full of them scattered across the USA. In a crisis these orchards will be a great source of food if you know where to find them.
The Japanese chestnut is even smaller, usually less than 50 feet tall when mature, but like the Chinese chestnut it’s also resistant to blight.
Because of its smaller size this tree isn’t as popular with chestnut growers, but you might find them in parks or gardens anywhere in the USA.
Finally the European sweet chestnut has also been introduced to the USA both as an ornamental tree and for commercial production. Chestnut blight can kill this tree, but it’s more resistant than the American chestnut.
It’s also even larger, and has the same high quality of timber. Many orchards contain European chestnuts or hybrids of the European and Chinese trees.
The introduction of chestnut blight by careless gardeners was an ecological tragedy. For preppers it’s even worse, because it made a common and valuable food source much rarer. There are still millions of chestnut trees in the USA though, and while many of these are Asian trees with poor quality timber they will still give you a good crop of nuts. It’s well worth finding out if there are any orchards or stands of wild trees in your area, because when the SHTF they’ll make a very useful addition to your diet.
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