Time was, the great forests from Appalachia east looked like they'd had a blizzard in the summertime. But all that fluffy white wasn't snow; it was the American chestnut in magnificent flower. The tree provided tall straight lumber for frontier expansion, fed the indigenous peoples for millennia, gave tannin to cure skins for leather and provided plain old aesthetic pleasure. And then, in 1904, a rapacious virus possibly transmitted by an Asian chestnut variety arrived at the Bronx Zoo. Traveling some 50 miles a year, the resulting blight ran its course by the 1950s, and a tree so ubiquitous in the American landscape that it became a cliché that refers to a cliché—that old chestnut was no more. An estimated 3.5 billion trees perished.
The chestnut still thrives, though not our native one. European immigrants who settled the Eastern Seaboard brought their love of chestnuts with them and their descendents still want the nut, often referred as coming from the "bread" tree due to its malleable starchy qualities. Now they just have to get it from California.
The rub, of course, being that Californians mostly don't know what to do with a difficult-to-peel foodstuff that might make a nice curiosity at Christmas but otherwise has no culinary resonance. That's kind of where Sally Weed comes in.
Weed, 49, finds herself in the odd position of accidentally being one of the largest commercial chestnut growers in the United States. She inherited the ranch from her husband, who tragically died from a sudden brain disease just months after their 2008 marriage. "We were going to do the chestnuts together," she says simply. "Our whole thing falling in love was a very botany-based thing. We were making a botanical garden here, but that's more daunting a project. I'm always fighting the wild pigs. Chestnuts are easier."
Based in Healdsburg but with a ranch near the Feather River in Gridley, Calif., Weed has 22-plus acres of trees producing about 50 tons of nuts a year, most of which she is forced to ship back east for sale.
"The chestnut ranch, mentally, is captivating for me," Weed says. "You read Michael Pollan about eating locally and then think about air-freighting thousands of pounds of chestnuts to New Jersey. Why are we doing that? Because they'd go to waste here."
Weed has Syrah vines on her Healdsburg land, but, she says, "I'm not crazy about growing grapes. Five acres of grapes is much less of a commodity than just about five acres of anything else."
So she's focusing on her nuts, which requires communicating her passion while educating buyers one at a time. "I'm trying to create an interest and let people know that there are local outlets for chestnuts," she says.
To that end, Weed does the Healdsburg Farmers Market in the fall and takes baskets of the nuts to area restaurants, hoping to convince local chefs to try them. So far, Cyrus, Madrona Manor, Scopa, Zazu, Diavola, Dry Creek Kitchen and Bistro Ralph are regular customers. In fact, Cyrus chef and co-owner Douglas Keane is a confirmed fan. "I've only used Sally's for the last two years," he enthuses. "When I met her, I was so excited to find someone local who was growing them."
Many Californians may have had a roasted chestnut a time or two, but most of us have no idea how to cook with them. Keane uses them in risotto; slices the nuts thinly and sautés them in butter; crafts them into a dessert flavored with passion fruit and green tea; likes the autumnal pleasure of a chestnut and sherry soup with black truffles. The latter is not an entirely original idea. He admits with a laugh, "I completely stole it from Spago in Beverley Hills. They paired it with [another] sherry, and it was one of those food and wine moments. I just sat there, stunned. So I stole it." He hastens to add, with another chuckle, "It's OK. I told them."
Weed, of course, uses chestnuts in her kitchen much of the year. "You can cook them in broth, you can grind them up and make gnocchi out of them, you can go sweet, you can go savory," she says. "It's like tofu in that it absorbs the flavors, but it does have a flavor of its own."
Keane estimates that his restaurant goes through a few hundred pounds of chestnuts each fall. That's an impressive amount for an item so fleetingly available.
"The season is short, just September through October," Weed explains. "And chestnuts are extremely perishable. They're like fresh flowers. You have to keep them refrigerated. They're not like other nuts you see at the supermarket, yet they're stored that way. You pick them up and they rattle. Those are not fresh."When Weed is at the farm market, she is careful to show customers how relatively easy the nut is to work with once you understand a little bit about its treasures. "It's something like when people want to eat fresh fava beans, they have to peel them," she explains. "It's worth it to have them fresh. I like to peel the chestnuts raw, so when I'm talking to people at the market, I'm peeling chestnuts all the time."
Keane has a somewhat faster method of removing the shell from the meat, though it can be explosive. "I nip off the top and score the bottom. That allows air to get in there. Then you steam it, and that makes it much easier to slip the skin off. But you've got to pay attention," he laughs, "because if you don't, it'll blow up."
Laughter aside, all of this talk really centers around serving community. Keane likes buying from a local grower; Weed likes introducing her neighbors to a comestible they may not be familiar with. In a recent interview with the Chestnut Growers of America, Weed reflects on the importance of local bounty.
"Previously, my experience with growing was on the scale of a home garden," she admits. "It is rewarding because I have learned so much and know I have so much more to learn. It is also rewarding because we live in a time where people from all backgrounds, cultures and access levels are focused on where their food comes from. People are interested in the integrity of our motivations as growers.
"I think it means something," she stresses, "when a grower loves land, plants, food, trees and is delighted by the product he or she is associated with."
Sally Weed has fresh chestnuts available at the Healdsburg Farmers' Market through November. Saturday, 9am to noon, one block west of the Plaza, on Foss Creek.