ATHENS, Ohio — A growing demand for things like bread and other culinary items made with chestnut flour has increased the popularity of the once dwindling native American chestnut tree.
“When people chew chestnut flour bread, they notice that the taste gets sweeter,” said Devon Halliday, co-owner of Athens Bread Company, in Athens, Ohio.
Chestnut flour is made from ground chestnuts, and it’s becoming popular. According to Rural Action, a cooperative nonprofit located in the Athens area, the current demand for culinary chestnuts far exceeds the supply. At the turn of the 20th century, a deadly blight devastated the American chestnut and the tree was nearly extinct, but the cooperative is working to restore this ecologically and economically important species to the area.
“We sell out of fresh chestnuts in a couple of weeks,” said Amy Miller, manager of Route 9 Cooperative, adding that they can’t keep up with the demand.
Route 9 Cooperative, a membership-based nonprofit organization based in Appalachian Ohio, reports that the remainder of their harvest (about 20%) is Grade B and unsellable as fresh chestnuts.
These chestnuts are dried, shelled and then ground. The flour is a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes, from bread to desserts. Chestnut flour is also a good source of nutrients, dietary fiber, protein, and vitamins B and C. It may also be a choice for people who are looking for a healthy and nutritious alternative to wheat flour.
The flour is easy to work with, but, according to Halliday, there needs to be much more research with trial and error when using chestnut flour.
“We roasted some chestnuts and froze them, and haven’t been able to use them yet,” she said.
Chestnuts are enjoying a popularity that hasn’t been seen in about 100 years and growing them is fairly straightforward.
“It takes about four to five years for the trees to mature and begin to produce chestnuts,” Miller said. “Also, chestnut trees can grow on irregular, uneven slopes with acidic soil or well-drained sandy soil, which is pretty typical of the Appalachian region of the U.S.”
It makes them economically viable,” she said. “Farmers can diversify their income from underused or unused land.”
Chestnut trees are also environmentally sound since they add biodiversity and can adapt to climate mitigation. Additionally, if a farmer is interested, there is very little risk since they can be planted in places where there may be minimal interference with other crops. Other complementary crops may be blueberries or raspberries, Miller said.
Culinary chestnut flour can be sold for about $10 per pound. And, according to Miller, it can make the product essential for long term economic stability.
In addition to fresh chestnuts and chestnut flour, Miller said the food industry is also interested in chestnut beer and chestnut whiskey. A brewery in Columbus has created a chocolate and chestnut barley bourbon ale using Rural Action’s chestnuts. It gets rave reviews.
Miller said there are six different landowners and thousands of chestnut trees within the cooperative. One acre will yield between 1,000 and 3,000 pounds of chestnuts. The online store will sell about 100,000 pounds of fresh chestnuts for the year.
“We open our online store on Oct. 1 and then we sell out in about two weeks and close our online store before we’re done harvesting,” she said.
While the demand for fresh chestnuts may sustain some growers, the chestnut flour needs more development and research for drying and milling. Halliday added that it can be a choice for people who are looking for gluten free alternatives to wheat since it can be added to not only bread, but pasta, pancakes, waffles, cookies, and cakes.
As for further research into chestnut flour, the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative has received a grant from North Central SARE, which will enable farmers and millers to scale up the milling processes and increase the production of the climate-resilient chestnut.
Rural Action’s Sustainable Agriculture program has partnered with four farmers from the Route 9 Cooperative and three local mills to develop value-added products.
The objectives of the grant will be to identify high-quality milling equipment and best
practices that are economically viable, and the cooperative plans on creating a business plan for the processing of grade B chestnuts.
The potential is very positive, said Eleanor Reagan, of the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative.
Reagan said they are always looking for new recipes and new ideas on how to use chestnuts and states that they will continue to distribute the flour to bakers, chefs and brewers as they look for feedback for a marketable fine flour.
If you’re curious on using chestnuts, here’s a recipe for chestnut soup using whole boiled chestnuts.
4 slices bacon, roughly chopped
2 tbsp. unsalted butter
1 large shallot or onion, roughly chopped
1 medium carrot, roughly chopped
1 small leek cleaned thoroughly, roughly chopped
1 stalk celery, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic
6 cups chicken stock
2⅔ cup whole boiled chestnuts, peeled and chopped
1 bay leaf
1 sprig thyme
½ cup heavy cream
½ tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook bacon until rendered and crisp, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer bacon to a paper towel–lined plate and set aside to cool. Once cool enough to handle crumble for garnish after. Pour off all but 1 teaspoon of the fat. In the same saucepan, add butter, shallot, carrot, leek, celery and garlic; cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are soft, 5–7 minutes. Add stock, chestnuts or chestnut purée, bay leaf, and thyme; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium; cook, slightly covered, until chestnuts are very tender, about 30 minutes. Remove from heat and let cool slightly. Discard bay leaf and thyme. Working in batches, purée soup in a blender until smooth. Return soup to saucepan and place over medium heat. Stir in cream, nutmeg, salt, and pepper; cook until soup is slightly thick, about 5 minutes more, adding more broth to desired thickness. Garnish with crumbled bacon and chives
(Reporter Nella Citino can be reached at email@example.com or 323-643-2353.)