Vendor Spotlight: Virginia Chestnuts
Early in September, Kim Bryant is just embarking on her busy season. For the next four to six weeks, ripe chestnut husks will open up, and chestnuts will plop to the ground. As you walk along the Bryant’s chestnut orchard, you can hear them falling with a thud.
After the summer blossoms fade away, the spiky, somewhat alien-looking husks begin to turn a brownish color, as they signal that they are nearly ready to deliver their goods to the eager farmers below.
Bryant, and husband David, along with a handful of seasonal employees, gather the fallen nuts with a combination of automated and manual equipment, first skimming each row for the husks that have fallen far enough from the tree to grab easily, and then doubling back to snag the ones that landed closer to the trunk.
The chestnuts are then washed and refrigerated to preserve freshness. This allows Virginia Chestnuts to offer their product in a variety of forms, and indeed, Kim says they are actively seeking feedback from chefs and grocers on what form they’d like to see their chestnuts–in shell, shelled, or pureed.*
While the chestnut is native to America, a mid-century blight wiped out most of the trees in this country, which means the majority of chestnuts consumed in the states are imported from Europe. The Bryants saw an opportunity: “We’re reintroducing chestnuts back to the American palate. A lot of people have heard of chestnuts but have never actually eaten one.”
In 2012, the Bryants began their farm and Virginia Chestnuts, a collective of five farms, including the Bryant’s, that grows and sells chestnuts, all of which are processed by the Bryants for distribution.
Meanwhile, the Bryants still run a software business, as they have for the past 20 years. Kim says chestnuts are the Bryants’ retirement plan. “When we were researching crops for our new farm, we found that much of the chestnut harvesting and processing could be automated with machinery, making it a good crop to work on during retirement.” Both Kim and David have farming and gardening backgrounds, so they were interested in a retirement plan that brought them back to that lifestyle.
Reintroducing a bygone crop has its challenges, says Kim, including educating people about the variety of ways that chestnuts can be used. “It would be great for chefs and consumers to know that chestnuts are flexible enough to use in sweet as well as savory dishes and beverages.”
“What Virginia Chestnuts offers is fresh chestnuts that have been refrigerated to maintain this freshness. In 2017, we will be using a new technology that will allow us to extend the chestnut season and keep those chestnuts fresh from harvest through Christmas.”
*Chefs! Virginia Chestnuts wants to know what form you’d like your chestnuts in next year–fresh, in or out of the shell, pureed, frozen, etc. Please leave us some feedback in the comments so that Virginia Chestnuts can make the best product for you in 2017!
Kim shared with us a few ways to enjoy fresh chestnuts:
Over the past few years, we have tested several recipes for chestnuts, including how to roast. This is the way that we like them the best:
1) With a serrated knife, cut an “X” on the flat side of the chestnuts
2) Boil chestnuts for 15 minutes
3) Roast over an open fire, or in your oven (about 350 degress) for another 15 minutes or until tender. They are best served hot, but allow them to cool a bit before shelling.
With a food processor, the possibilities are endless.
1) Follow directions for roasted chestnuts
2) When cool enough to peel, add peeled chestnuts to your food processor and a little bit of water. Puree chestnuts to the texture of peanut butter.
3) Here are your possibilities:
- Add a little honey and make a chestnut spread for crackers
- Add the puree instead of bananas to your favorite banana bread recipe
- Use the puree for your favorite chestnut soup recipe
- Put chestnuts in a jar and fill with honey. Within 2 weeks you’ll have a delicious candy.