Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 17, 2022
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That ol’ chestnut

Hit by blight a century ago, the King of the Forest struggles to make a comeback

That old tune about you-know-what roasting on an open fire is a bit of nostalgic trickery. Truth is, the myths built up around this tasty local nut celebrate a long-lost food that is only lately making appearances at some Ontario farmers’ markets and on restaurant menus.

Most of Canada’s supply of sweet chestnuts have long come from Europe, especially Italy and France, and lately from China, Korea and Turkey. But we used to grow our own: the edible American chestnut.

Nearly wiped out by blight 100 years ago, it still remains virtually unknown. Yet together with the common Asian and European varieties, this nutritious nut, which is unusual for its high ratio of carbohydrates to oil, proved one of the great global providers, for millennia, of free food for people and wildlife alike.

The American chestnut earned its nickname of King of the Forest. It once reigned 4 billion trees strong over 80 million hectares, making up about 25 percent of all eastern hardwoods from Florida up through the Appalachians into Ontario, Quebec and as far east as Nova Scotia.

But then blight hit about 100 years ago, and the tree known as the Redwood of the East — stretching up 36 metres and across two metres — was nearly wiped out.

It was at the Bronx Zoo in 1904 that the first signs of the killer blight were discovered. Along with some shipped cargo, the disease snuck in from Asia, where trees were immune, and began attacking the American chestnut. Forests were devastated and the legacy of the nut, good for roasting on an open fire, was nearly lost to survive only in sentimental songs and pioneer-era poetry.

Niagara-on-the-lake nut farmer Ernie Grimo, a local legend for his work in propagating native trees, recalls it was an article about the endangered chestnut that inspired him to plant the species as his first venture into tree planting. It was the late ‘60s, and, like his colleagues across the continent, Grimo has never been able to elude blight. “I’ve had some trees last 30 years, grow to 70 centimetres across and I thought they were blight-resistant. Then suddenly they were dead.”

Efforts to contain the disease include, most controversially, a laboratory effort at Syracuse University to develop a genetically modified tree. “There’s one GM tree in the ground,” says Grimo. “I see that as the future. Our breeding is a shotgun approach.”

The image of a lone, experimental tree is a long way from stories of the wild chestnut as provider of pennies from heaven for farm families: the nuts were sold at market, eaten at home fresh, dried, ground for flour, and turned into soups and stuffings. Leftovers were for the pigs, who were let out of their pens in the fall to eat the surplus nuts. This added a note of nutty flavour to their meat. The tree was good for lumber and for burning and it was a renewable resource: cut it down and others would grow back from the roots.

The Canadian Chestnut Council and, south of the border, the American Chestnut Foundation have been working for decades to find a blight-resistant stock through cross-breeding with the Asian variety, also known as an orchard chestnut. The plants are different — the Asian is more like a bush — and scientists are hoping to produce a lofty tree close to the original American.

There is progress, and the fruit, fortunately, is comparable, reports Grimo. “I wouldn’t even know how to tell the difference between a hybrid and a North American chestnut.”

At his farm’s peak, Grimo has reaped about one tonne in a year’s harvest on 8000 dedicated square metres. As president of the Northern Nut Growers Association, he estimates about 15 to 30 tonnes of chestnuts are grown in the region. “We are far from reaching the production needed to supply the supermarkets.”

Mark Picone, a chef and teacher at the Niagara Culinary Institute, who is engrossed with research and development of regional foods, gets local chestnuts from three suppliers: Grimo, plus two “eccentric producers” he calls “anonymous.” Like wild-mushroom foragers, these resources are valuable, well-kept secrets.

Picone’s memories of eating the ebony, hard-shelled nut date back to childhood. “My grandmother taught me to prepare chestnuts with a cross-hatch at the top of the nut, like the Cross.”

Today, he uses the nut for everything from soups to gelato. “I make a chestnut bisque with them,” he says (see recipe at ). And he rhymes off a dozen uses including “a coarse vegetable mash” made with parsnips, shallots and Yukon gold potatoes. “The chestnuts bring an added dimension, a depth of flavour — a unique nuttiness — and a rich colour.”

Picone lingers on the menu: perhaps the side dish is best paired with a roast of wild boar. For dessert, “a chestnut purée, flavoured with orange, vanilla pod and cloves, can be matched with some Monforte dairy crème fraîche.”

In parts of Europe, chestnuts were known as “the bread of the mountain,” an image that still holds true in regions of France and Italy where the forests thrive. To this day, they remain the site of autumn festivals where chestnut-infused polenta, sweet cakes and pizzas are served al fresco from wooden carts and makeshift stands. The narrow streets are smeared with dropped leaves, and the air is rich with the fragrance of roasting chestnuts.

Nearby storage cellars have been filled to knee-deep capacity. Like Picone, Grimo’s Italian heritage meant an early introduction to the nut. “Many Canadians have never eaten a chestnut and don’t know what they are or how to use them. People of European and Chinese extraction are usually the ones who will purchase them for their nutritional value. For many others, they are novelties to try.”

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