2016-12-15 / Life in Leelanau

Comfort Food

“Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at your nose.”
By Amy Hubbell
Of The Enterprise staff


THE TRADITION of roasting chestnuts during the holiday season goes back to the 16th century when vendors sold the treats on the streets of Rome. THE TRADITION of roasting chestnuts during the holiday season goes back to the 16th century when vendors sold the treats on the streets of Rome. Mel Torme really had something special when he wrote the holiday standard, “The Christmas Song.”

The tune conjures up warm thoughts of home and family, and mentions a seasonal delicacy that is somewhat little-known but is setting down roots in Leelanau County.

The humble chestnut.

“There’s definitely been rekindled interest in chestnuts,” said Erin Lizotte, Michigan State University Extension educator, Wexford County. “It started in the ‘80s and with new cultivars … we see people can make money.”

Roasting chestnuts dates back centuries, but it wasn’t limited to the holiday season. Chestnuts were a staple in Mediterranean countries thousands of years ago in part because most cereal grains wouldn’t grow in these areas.


NANCY AND Matt Reeves have four acres of chestnuts growing in Centerville Township. NANCY AND Matt Reeves have four acres of chestnuts growing in Centerville Township. They are low in fat, high in fiber and when roasted become little nuggets of love. Roasting sweetens the nut’s raw, bitter flavor, which is likely how it became a holiday favorite.

There’s no real consensus on when chestnut roasting became a holiday tradition. However, some historians believe the practice dates back to the 16th century, when vendors sold the treat on the streets of Rome.

That makes perfect sense to Nancy (Postorini) Reeves, a part-time county resident who splits her time between East Lansing and Centerville Township.

“When I was a kid my grandmother would make them for us,” she said. “I’m Italian on both sides of my family.

In 1995, Reeves and her husband, Matt, a professor of epidemiology at Michigan State University Medical School, bought property in Centerville Township that included four acres of chestnut trees.

“It kind of happened by accident,” she said. “There were some planted on the property and we put in another 55 to 60 new trees.”

The same conditions that make Leelanau great for growing cherries, apples and grapes are also favored by chestnuts.

“The best sites for growing have similar characteristics— rolling hills and sandy soil,” said Josh Springer of Chestnut Orchards, a consulting and maintenance company specializing in chestnuts.

Plantings require two types of cultivars as chestnuts are not self-pollinating, but the trees require less maintenance than fruit trees.

“They require much less spray than other crops,” Springer said. “ Just a fraction of what you would use for cherries.”

Chestnuts bloom later in the season than Leelanau fruit trees with peak pollination usually happening the first week in July.

“The late blossom is another benefit of chestnuts,” Lizotte said. “There’s less chance of frost.”

Harvest begins in mid-September and usually concludes by the end of October.

A record 215,000 pounds of chestnuts were harvested in Michigan this year. This pales in comparison to cherry production, but is none-the-less substantial in the state that’s No. 1 in the country in number of chestnut farms (150) and acreage (616), according to 2012 industry figures.

“I know of at least 100 acres that have gone in since then, so we’re over 700 acres,” Springer said.

Chestnut trees also grow in residential areas. But before you go out in your backyard to rustle up some nuts for your next holiday gathering, a word of caution: Not all are edible.

In fact, some are toxic.

The edible chestnut, or sweet chestnut, is easiest to spot if it is still in its husk, which is spiny and needle-sharp. The toxic, inedible chestnut, also called a horse chestnut, has a husk that is much smoother and is marked by “warts.”

All chestnuts grown commercially in Michigan are sold through Chestnut Growers Inc. and can be found at Hansen Foods in Suttons Bay.

But friends of the Reeves won’t have to go to the store for their chestnuts.

“We kept about 30 pounds to give away,” she said.

IN A NUTSHELL

 A record 215,000 pounds of chestnuts were harvested in Michigan this year.

 In 2012, Michigan was No. 1 in the nation in the number of chestnut farms (150) and acreage (616).

 Even so, the U.S. produces less than 1 percent of all chestnuts grown worldwide.

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