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The Chestnut

The chestnut is probably the most important nut crop found throughout the temperate zone, worldwide. 

The chestnut is probably the most important nut crop found throughout the temperate zone, worldwide. With species indigenous to all three continents the chestnut has long been cultivated and consumed throughout Asia, Europe and America.
In the Mediterranean region, chestnuts have been cultivated for at least 3,000 years. The ancient Greeks are thought to have been among the first to cultivate the chestnut, introducing the European chestnut (Castanea sativa) from Asia minor, via Turkey, to S. Europe and N. Africa. The Romans were later responsible for extending the cultivation of C. sativa into northwest and central Europe and it was the Romans who named chestnuts “Castanea”, possibly after the name of the town where chestnuts were once very common. It is thought that the word chestnut is an English corruption of the original Latin. In Asia, the Japanese chestnut (C. crenata) has been cultivated at least since the 11th century, and the Chinese chestnut (C. mollissima) possibly for 2-6,000 years. In the US, the American chestnut (C. dentata) was once a major component of the indigenous forests.
Chestnuts were first introduced to New Zealand by some of the earliest European settlers. Today you can still find old, often forgotten trees scattered throughout much of New Zealand, often in the most unexpected places. Most are C. sativa or C. crenata, or seedling hybrids of the two. There are very few named, overseas chestnut cultivars to be found in New Zealand as necessarily strict quarantine requirements make the importing of overseas material extremely difficult, so as to avoid the risk of introducing overseas pests and diseases (such as chestnut blight and gall wasp) which would not only destroy our chestnut industry but could also attack some of our own fruit and tree species.
Plant Type: Small to large deciduous trees – meaning that the trees loose their leaves and become dormant to withstand cold winters. The large edible seeds are called chestnuts and are produced annually on the tree inside a prickly case called a burr. In the autumn, when ripe, the burr splits open allowing the chestnuts to fall free, onto the ground.
Uses: Production of nuts, hardwood timber and in overseas countries, hardwood timber and ground durable posts from the naturally rot resistant heartwood.
Latin Name: Castanea
Botanical Family: Fagaceae – this is also the beech and oak tree family. All chestnut species are native to northern hemisphere countries.
Worldwide there are four main species along with several minor species. The four main species that have been utilised by mankind for their various produce are:
1) Japanese chestnut – Castanea crenata – a small to medium sized tree (~10 m), which is typically multi leadered and wide spreading. Some varieties have very large nuts (~40 g), which are nearly the size of small potatoes. Nuts of this species typically have difficult to remove inner skins (pellicles). This species is well adapted to wet and humid weather conditions and hot summers (~30oC). These trees have been present in New Zealand since the early 1900’s, particularly in the upper North Island region.
2) Chinese chestnut – Castanea mollissima – a medium sized tree (~15 m), often multi branched and wide spreading. Nuts usually have easy to remove inner skins and come in a wide range of sizes, although typically smaller than the Japanese chestnut. At present the Chinese chestnut is a rare tree in New Zealand, but recent imports may change this.
3) American chestnut – Castanea dentata – the largest growing (~30 m) and straightest trunked of all the chestnut species, was once a prized timber tree in the USA before its demise due to the devastating fungus disease called chestnut blight. Nuts are typically very small (~5 g), but quite sweet tasting with easy to remove inner skins. This is a rare tree in New Zealand but recently has been imported through quarantine.
4) European chestnut – Castanea sativa – a large growing (~20 m) and wide spreading tree which originated from around Turkey and the Black Sea region of southern Russia. During Roman times this very versatile and adaptable species was introduced to most present day European countries where it has become naturalised, and today is a common part of the landscape in many regions. The nuts are quite variable but superior fruiting varieties possess good size, sweet taste and have easy to remove inner skins. This tree is the most commonly seen chestnut species in New Zealand where it was introduced by the early settlers. This species is also known as the sweet chestnut or the Spanish chestnut in English speaking countries.
Hybrids: Where the different species have been planted in close proximity to each other by man natural hybrids between the species occur readily. This has occurred in several countries around the world including New Zealand, where today large hybrid chestnut trees are common. Chestnut breeding programmes around the world have deliberately hybridised the various species to create superior varieties for fruit and/or timber production. European/Japanese hybrids are now the common commercial fruiting varieties in France, Australia, New Zealand and the western USA. Japanese/Chinese hybrid varieties are now found in South Korea and Japan. American/Chinese hybrid varieties are now found in the eastern USA along with even more complex hybridsFood Value: Chestnuts have a quite remarkable nutritional composition that sets them apart from all other nuts and makes them an outstanding food source which can be a dietary staple. The nuts are ~50% water when fresh, which makes them highly perishable. Chestnuts are made up of primarily complex carbohydrate, are low in protein (~5%) and are very low in fat (~1%), have reasonable quantities of vitamin C and potassium, are very low in sodium and are free of gluten, oil and cholesterol. The protein is of very high quality, comparable with eggs and is easily assimilated by the human body.
The flavour, texture and sweetness of the nuts from different chestnut species and varieties varies widely, from tasteless and bland to very sweet and flavoursome.
To Eat: One must first remove the outer shell and inner bitter tasting skin to obtain the edible kernel and although chestnuts can be eaten raw after peeling they are usually cooked in some way.
Cooking methods vary widely but simply can be done by boiling the in-shell nuts whole for half an hour and then cutting them in half and scooping out the soft kernel flesh inside using a teaspoon.
Another common way is to roast in-shell chestnuts in the oven, over hot embers or in the microwave, but you MUST pierce the shell with a small cut or cut them in half beforehand with a knife to prevent them from exploding when they cook!
Specialised hand held chestnut peelers that remove the shell and inner skin together before cooking make the tiresome task of peeling chestnuts quite easy and quick. (These are available in New Zealand). Once you have peeled your chestnuts they may be cooked in a wide variety of ways – boiled, roasted, steamed, microwaved, pureed, soups, stuffings, sweet desserts and so on.
The nuts can also be dried and ground into an excellent quality flour for bread, biscuits, gravies etc.
Chestnuts are very diverse in their culinary uses and many classic chestnut recipes are popular worldwide

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