The American chestnut tree of the past is long gone, but thanks to a group of Virginia farmers, centuries-old chestnut traditions are being re-introduced.
Virginia Chestnuts LLC, a group of chestnut growers offering “a taste of history,” is comprised of five Nelson County farms—Breidablik Farm, Bryant Farm and Nursery, Helbert Orchard, Hopkins Orchard and Seamans’ Orchard Inc.—and Jefferson Farm in Rockingham County.
Chestnuts owe a fair amount of their lore to the opening line of Nat King Cole classic The Christmas Song. However, when his timeless rendition was released in 1946, the American chestnut was already largely extinct. Now, if Americans have ever eaten chestnuts at all, they were likely imported.
Providing the public with fresh chestnuts has been Virginia Chestnuts’ way of bringing a nearly forgotten legacy back into Virginia homes as well as those across the nation. The group shipped chestnuts to over 40 states in 2018.
“Ninety percent of the chestnuts eaten in the United States are imported, and when they get to the grocery store, they’re not refrigerated,” said Kim Bryant of Bryant Farm and Nursery. “We keep our chestnuts refrigerated. We keep a good, fresh product, and when people get it they are just amazed with the quality of the flavor—they’re nice and sweet like they should be.”
In addition to the chestnut’s natural sweetness, the nut has become a mainstay holiday food due to its health benefits. Chestnuts provide a low-calorie, lowfat snack compared to other nuts, but also are high in fiber, complex carbohydrates and vitamin C.
In addition to boiling or roasting chestnuts, they also can be used in recipes for soup, pasta, bread and stuffing. A chestnut puree can be added to cakes or made into a frosting.
“People don’t realize how versatile chestnuts are,” Bryant said.
She said Virginia Chestnuts’ harvest this fall was its best yet, totaling 11,000 pounds. Demand also has been high, with two-thirds of the harvest already sold.