Once again the chestnut trees are dropping their glossy nuts, and the squirrels and I are in a fierce but silent battle. My grandfather planted several varieties of Chinese chestnut so he would have an extended harvest. What made him think to do that? He was a lawyer, he read the Wall Street Journal and sipped his drink. Yet he was a fervent chicken-necker of crabs, picker of beans, of wineberries. Did he know we might need it? Because he read the Wall Street Journal?
The first tree that ripens is on the other side of the lane from my garden so I don’t hear it as well as the second one. The nuts are covered with a satiny down, and tend to be a little smaller than the others. Those are ripening now, and the squirrels are silently aware of each burr that opens. I have heard people say it will be a wet, cold winter. It has been a while since we have had heavy snow. Chestnuts are very nutritious; in fact in French one old name for a chestnut tree is arbre a pain: tree of bread.
Remember hearing about how the hallucinatory smut fungus called ergot on rye was the cause of people being accused of being witches? People would actually confess to flying around on broomsticks, when they were actually tripping. Many grain crops are problematic in wet climates. They tend to “lodge” or lie down due to rain and wind, where they rot. Often in rainy Europe in the old days the wheat crop would fail and peasants would go hungry. Many people relied on chestnuts to survive. Italy and France have lots of chestnuts. They used to smoke-dry them in special chestnut smoking houses, since chestnuts will otherwise be wormy inside a week. There are many ancient chestnut based dishes which tend to be heavy and nutritious. I used to trick my grandmother into eating by reminding her of how she used to eat chestnut puree at her landlady’s house when she was in graduate school in France in the Twenties. Charmed by the memory, my anorexic granny would absently spoon down piles of the rich puree de marron I had made from the chestnuts my grandfather had planted, while we talked about Alsace and the calorie counter in my head spun happily.
When gathering chestnuts, squeeze each chestnut, especially if it seems unusually dark. Fresh, firm, bright nuts are what you want. Refrigerate them if you aren’t going to process them immediately. Make one long slash through the skin and bake them until they pop open. From there you can put them in the blender for creamy soup, eat them as is, boil them and mash them or rice them, candy them, dry and grind them into flour, or throw them for the dog. They do not have a nice texture if frozen; it is sort of heavy and gummy. Perhaps it wouldn’t matter after cooking.
There are two trees on the farm that have very glossy chestnuts. These are the fresh fallen firecoals I refer to, after Gerard Manly Hopkins. ( This link will send you to last years chestnut rhapsody, in which I discuss Hopkins, which is such great stuff.) Startlingly reddish brown- chestnuts are chestnut- they are so shiny that the best way to get them gathered is by children, whose small hands reach for the beautiful things, to carry them home in a sack and caress them. Just make sure they don’t try to pick them out of the chestnut burrs, which are like small hedgehogs. Those spines stick and break off under your skin. Do wear gloves if you touch them. It generally isn’t necessary. Most ripe nuts just fall right out. Go squirrels!
And remember to wear shoes walking under that tree next year. My dear stepdaughter was walking barefoot unawares under a chestnut tree a few years ago and let fly a few expletives, then realized that her new aunt was being baptized in the swimming pool within earshot. I’m pretty sure the angels were guffawing all over the place.