Chestnut dreams: In Nelson County, growers bring back a local delicacy

Sunlight slants through the chestnut grove a dust-stirring harvest at the Virginia Chestnuts Bryant Farm and Nursery in Shipman, Virginia. Photo: Zack Wajsgras Sunlight slants through the chestnut grove a dust-stirring harvest at the Virginia Chestnuts Bryant Farm and Nursery in Shipman, Virginia. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

Bryant Farms and Nursery in Shipman doesn’t look that remarkable from the road: just acres of hillsides planted with young trees, their straight slender trunks forming a grid pattern. It’s not obvious, from a distance, what species is growing here. But following the gravel drive through the orchard, down into a ravine and up again, one begins to notice the odd-looking green balls hanging from the branches. Fiercely spiky, lime-colored, a little bigger than chicken eggs, these could only be the fruit of the legendary chestnut tree.

Dave Bryant, who with his wife Kim owns these 46 acres, walks up to one of his 1,600 trees and steps on a fallen fruit laying in the shade beneath it. Its husk, which would poke holes in your skin as surely as any defensive desert cactus, gives way under his boot and splits neatly into four petal-like quadrants. Inside is a trio of dark nuts, as smooth and inviting to the touch as their husk is forbidding.

This is early October, and as Bryant explains, the trees have been dropping nuts for about three weeks, with perhaps a week to go. “They’re 10 years old, and they’re just coming into peak production,” he says. The farm illustrates the mid-harvest moment, with pieces of dry brown husk on the ground, other fruit still waiting green in the trees, and processing equipment at the ready in the barn.

Kim and David Bryant grow, process and distribute chestnuts from their farm in Shipman, Virginia. The 2019 harvest provided a bounty of 15,000 pounds of nuts. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

It’s curious how unfamiliar the trees are—their leaves and fruit seeming slightly alien—considering that the American chestnut was once a key native species throughout Appalachia. Richard Powers’ tree-obsessed novel The Overstory captures their beauty and importance:

“The chestnuts up North were majestic. But the southern trees are gods. They form near-pure stands for miles on end. In the Carolinas, boles older than America grow ten feet wide and a hundred and twenty feet tall. Whole forests of them flower in rolling clouds of white. Scores of mountain communities are built from the beautiful, straight-grained wood. A single tree might yield as many as fourteen thousand planks. The stocks of food that fall shin-deep feed entire counties, every year a mast year.”

Powers goes on to describe the tragic, mind- boggling epidemic that saw America’s four billion chestnut trees fall prey to blight in the early decades of the 20th century. Accidentally introduced from Asia, the fungus spread rapidly from its entry point in New York City and within 40 years had wiped out nearly every chestnut in the country. Though chestnuts lived on in cultural memory, they left a glaring absence in the actual forests.

Comeback crop

Dave Bryant says he wasn’t really pondering this history when he decided to plant a chestnut orchard. He and Kim just wanted to find a profitable crop to raise in their retirement, something they could physically handle as they grew older (as opposed to, he says, green beans that must be picked while bending over).

Wry and gregarious, with a neat white goatee, Bryant grew up in Nelson County and worked as a software developer before buying this property in 2002. The couple stumbled on the notion of chestnut farming as they researched many potential crops. Luckily for them, and for everyone who enjoys eating chestnuts, there are now hybrid varieties available that are bred to resist blight. The Bryants chose the variety Dunstan: 95 percent American chestnut, with 5 percent Chinese chestnut genes offering protection from disease.

“Its husk, which would poke holes in your skin as surely as any defensive desert cactus, gives way under his boot and splits neatly into four petal-like quadrants. Inside is a trio of dark nuts, as smooth and inviting to the touch as their outer shell is forbidding.” Photo: Zack Wajsgras

 

 

“Later, we said, ‘This is romantic,’” Bryant says—referring to the act of replanting 23 acres in Appalachia with a species that once held such significance here. But it’s harvest time, and practical matters come first.

For example, the Bryants and their helpers know that any nuts left lying on the ground overnight are likely to end up feeding deer—so they make a point of harvesting in the last hours before dark. “They fall to the ground naturally,” says Bryant. “We pick them up by hand, or I have a harvester I pull behind the tractor.” The machine’s rubber fingers flick the nuts onto a mesh conveyor belt that delivers them into plastic totes.

Lots of husks, sticks, and rocks end up in those totes too, which is where the pre-cleaner machine (nickname: Ethel) comes in. Sorting materials by weight and size, Ethel separates the “trash” from the nuts—“a lifesaver for us,” Bryant says. “We did it manually for the first couple of years.”

Ethel is officially designed to clean pecans, which speaks to the fact that chestnuts are a specialty crop, not as tightly woven into our culinary culture as other nuts. Having joined with four other growers in central Virginia to form the cooperative company Virginia Chestnuts, Bryant sells much of his product in cute two-pound burlap sacks at holiday markets and roadside stops. (A two-pound sack on virginiachestnuts.com costs $17.) They may not be a staple like walnuts or almonds, but they do enjoy a close association in American tradition with Thanksgiving and Christmas, which certainly helps move product. November, says Bryant, is the most important sales month on the chestnut grower’s calendar.

He’s pleased with this year’s crop, which he expects to weigh in at around 15,000 pounds. “It’s been so dry,” he says, “but the chestnuts are a nice size. You want them to have that red mahogany color”—and to feel very firm when squeezed.

As an entity, Virginia Chestnuts lives on the Bryant farm and is mostly run by Dave and Kim, but it’s meant to make life easier for all five of its member growers. A decade ago when they were just starting to plant their orchards, Bryant says, “We decided, ‘Let’s not all buy [our own] equipment and do processing.’” Apple growers had formed similar co-ops in the past, pooling resources to make washing, packing and marketing more efficient.

The group sells mainly fresh chestnuts, but Bryant says there’s a limit to that market, and as the growers’ crops continue to burgeon, they’ll begin to supply other products: dehydrated and frozen chestnuts, plus chestnut flour. Bryant expects future yields to reach 50,000 pounds per year.

After getting washed in a tank fitted out with bristly rollers, the chestnuts go inside to a sanitary processing room, where they get pasteurized, dipped in food-grade hydrogen peroxide, dried on racks, and chilled in walk-in coolers. As for the trees outside, they’re starting to close the gaps between their crowns, so they’ll soon be thinned to leave more space for each one to grow. Their mature height will be around 40 feet.

It’s different than the old-time stories of families wandering the mountains, shaded by chestnut trees 10 stories tall, and filling baskets with the natural abundance of the forest—a food given freely by the Appalachian environment and the giant trees it nurtured. But this orchard is a link to that time, experienced with all the senses: the sharpness of the husk, and its inner lining as velvety as a rabbit’s ear; the weight of the shiny dark nut in your hand; the moist yellow meat inside the skin that smells faintly of grass and cracks audibly when you bite into it. Mild, sweet, and satisfying, the flavor of a fresh raw chestnut is a true local delicacy (to say nothing of the sublime things that happen when you roast it—in your oven or, as the song has it, on an open fire).

Says Bryant, “You can’t hardly beat that as a snack.”

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