The chestnut was one of the first staple foods, a bounty that has been treasured throughout history and in many cultures. The King James Bible relates that Jacob, the storied breeder of cattle, placed twigs of peeled chestnut in his animals’ water troughs to promote healthy offspring. In the era of the Greeks and Romans, chestnuts were used as an easily harvested travel food for marching armies. The Greek mercenaries of Xenophon’s “Anabasis” survived on stores of chestnuts during their epic retreat across Asia Minor (401 − 399 B.C.), while the legions of Rome planted them across the empire.
Chestnuts supplemented the meagre diets of the rural poor in Europe who often had little or no access to grains. Their ripening was associated with the feast of St. Martin, the patron saint of beggars. Colonists in North America, where the chestnut had been a major indigenous food source for thousands of years, tied their ripening to Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations.
At one time, American chestnut trees dominated the forests of the eastern United States and Canada. They lived a thousand years and attained huge sizes, out-competing other trees for the resources of light, water and nutrients. Old photographs show groups of people standing before a single chestnut tree as large as a redwood. Yet today this Goliath of the woods is so rarely found that we might wonder why Longfellow ever wrote the lines, “Under the spreading chestnut tree, The village smithy stands.” For, having survived in North America for 40 million years, chestnut trees all but disappeared in four decades.
Where have the chestnut trees gone? The simple answer is that we, or at least our civilization, killed them. Just as the native inhabitants of the Americas who had evolved without the diseases of the Old World were decimated after their first contacts with European settlers; similarly, in the plant kingdom, the American chestnut tree had never been exposed to the blights that afflicted chestnuts in other parts of the globe. As a result, it had no natural resistance when disease-ridden trees from Asia were planted on Long Island in 1904.
The destruction of our chestnut trees was so rapid that by the 1940s they had been virtually obliterated in the New World. Today, the American Chestnut Foundation is toiling to reintroduce this beautiful tree in a heroic effort to rectify the tragic loss. We can only hope that it succeeds in creating a future where it once again thrives in the forests of North America.
Chestnuts are a wonderful food; roasted at food carts on city streets, deliciously filling crepes, providing a savoury meaty protein in vegetarian dishes, and from the nectar of their flowers, bees produce an ambrosial honey…. May they return.
Carolyn Best is the former proprietor and chef of The Pantry vegetarian tearoom.
Chestnut, Kale and Mushroom Ragout
- 9 oz. shallots
- 1 tbsp. olive oil
- 3 tbsp. butter
- 1 lb. cremini mushrooms, quartered
- 2 cups cooked chestnuts
- 1/3 cup port or sherry
- 1 ¼ cups mushroom stock or bouillon
- 1 rounded tbsp. arrowroot or all-purpose flour
- 3 cups chopped black kale (cavolo nero) sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, as needed
Heat the olive oil in a saucepan, add the butter and shallots. Cook over medium heat until beginning to brown. Add the mushrooms, salt and pepper. Cook 10 – 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, then pour in port or sherry and let it reduce. Stir in the arrowroot or flour and add as much stock or bouillon as needed to make a thick sauce. Simmer for 5 minutes, check seasoning, and set aside. Strip the stems off the black kale and tear it into rough pieces. Immerse them in boiling water and cook a few minutes until tender. Drain and fold the kale and the chestnuts into the mushrooms.
The ragout can be presented as a tart on puff pastry, but I prefer this already rich dish served on mashed potatoes.
For this recipe I buy a tin of unsweetened chestnut puree, which I mix with a little maple syrup until it is slightly sweet. (Sometimes it’s hard to find the unsweetened puree but worth the effort. The bagel shop on Wellington is usually a reliable source. The pre-sweetened are cloyingly sweet.)
Crepes are easier to make if you have time to let the batter sit, either overnight or an hour or so beforehand.
- 1 can chestnut puree, slightly sweetened with maple syrup
- 6 eggs
- 1 ½ cups milk or combination milk and cream
- ½ tsp salt
- 2 tbsp. melted butter (plus more for greasing pan)
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ cup maple syrup
Beat the eggs. Add the milk, salt, maple syrup, and butter. Beat again, add the flour and beat until well blended. If possible let the mixture rest for an hour or overnight.
Heat a crepe pan, or a cast-iron frying pan, and melt some butter in it. Pour a few tablespoons of batter in the pan and tilt the pan until the bottom is evenly covered. Cook until the underneath is golden brown (1 minute over medium heat), flip with a spatula and briefly cook the other side. Add a little more butter to the pan and continue cooking the crepes. Spread each one with a layer of chestnut puree and roll up. Keep warm in the oven. Can be served with whipped cream, or they can certainly stand alone.