Ask Roger Blackwell about chestnuts — and then stand back. Blackwell, president of Chestnut Growers Inc., a consortium of 32 Michigan chestnut growers, has a lifetime of experience with them. We put in a call right after Christmas, which we correctly guessed was his busy season, to see how Michigan’s chestnut orchards are doing.
As it turned out, selling fresh chestnuts in November and December is certainly the group’s busiest time of year. Blackwell tells us, “Basically, we’re harvesting chestnuts from the end of September and then the rest of the month of October, and then we start selling our fresh chestnuts in the market in November. We sold out this year about the second week of December.”
That’s a lot of fresh chestnuts, with more on the way, he says. “We’re growing a commercial chestnut industry here in the state of Michigan,” he says. “This year, our co-op produced about 88,000 pounds of chestnuts. If I had 500,000 pounds of chestnuts tomorrow, I could sell them all.” You see, although chestnuts are popular at Christmastime (and, yes, chestnut growers are grateful for that whole “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” lyric), the crop has wider applications and broader popularity than you might think.
After the fresh market, the remaining nuts go into an Italian-made peeling machine that Blackwell says is the only one in North America, and the nuts are peeled, frozen, and turned into other products. One is chestnut flour, the reason some call chestnuts “the grain that grows on trees.” Blackwell tells us that French chefs use chestnut flour to make a lot of desserts and pastries because it’s naturally sweet and because of its consistency. They sell much of their chestnut flour to Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor. Some of the chestnuts are also made into dried chestnut chips; not for eating, but for Jolly Pumpkin to use in making gluten-free beer.
Blackwell explains the nut’s appeal: “We’re what the state of Michigan calls a ‘specialty crop.’ It’s pretty small compared to blueberries or peaches or cherries. We’re just a new industry that we’re growing in the state. So it’s gonna take some time. I venture to say that within 10 years we’ll have production close to 500,000 pounds to be brought into the marketplace.”
And when it comes to specialty crops, Michigan is the real deal. Outside of California, no other state produces as wide a variety of agricultural crops, and Blackwell’s plan fits right in with our state’s sweet spot: small crops of unusual produce, such as persimmons, paw paws, blueberries, peaches, as well as different types of apples. In fact, it would be most proper to call a chestnut a “fruit” and not a “nut.” As Blackwell points out, it’s more than half water and often sweet when roasted a bit.
The kind of chestnut tree most often grown in Michigan is a European-Japanese hybrid called “Colossal.” Blackwell says, “We’re actually growing chestnuts in a colder climate than they have typically grown them in. These trees that we are growing here in Michigan are really interesting because we are growing them in a little bit harsher environment than the typical European areas that chestnuts have thrived in, such as Spain and Italy.
In taste tests, chestnuts that are grown here in Michigan versus, say, Washington, Oregon, California, and Georgia, actually were the sweetest-tasting. Blackwell thinks that the environment, the sandy loam soil that they’re grown in, and the influence of Lake Michigan on chestnuts orchards on the west side of the state, seem to make the flavor of the chestnuts sweeter. “We’ve actually replaced the imported Italian chestnut in the markets we’re in. Customers want the Michigan-grown chestnuts,” he says.
But do people roast chestnuts? Blackwell, who’s in a position to know, says they do and that it’s growing. “A lot of the people who buy our chestnuts right now are of different ethnic groups: Asian, European. And they know chestnuts because they are quite plentiful in their regions of the world,” he says. “Here in the United States, it’s a new food for the typical American. When we roast at Eastern Market, every second person hasn’t had a chestnut, so we hand out free samples. Most of the people like it, but there are a few people that think it’s gonna be a very hard nut, and they think it’s gonna taste like a peanut or cashew or something like that. Most people are surprised and they like the texture, which is soft and like a squash or a cooked potato. And, of course, it has more characteristics of a fruit.”
Want to learn more about chestnuts? See chestnutgrowersinc.com.