The Curious History of Chestnuts

Evidence of the cultivation of the chestnut by man is found since around 2000 BC.  It was Alexander the Great and the Romans who planted chestnut trees across Europe while on their various campaigns.

A Greek army is said to have survived their retreat from Asia Minor in 401–399 BC thanks to their stores of chestnuts. Ancient Greeks wrote of chestnuts to comment on their medicinal properties. To the early Christians, chestnuts symbolized chastity.

chestnutUntil the introduction of the potato, whole forest-dwelling communities which had scarce access to wheat flour relied on chestnuts as their main source of carbohydrates. In some parts of Italy, a cake made of chestnuts is used as a substitute for potatoes.

In 1584, the governor of Genua ordered all the farmers and landowners to plant four trees yearly, among which a chestnut tree – as well as olive, fig, and mulberry trees.

In France, the marron glacé, a candied chestnut involving 16 different processes in a typically French cooking style, is always served at Christmas and New Year’s time. In Modena, Italy, they are soaked in wine before roasting and serving, and are also traditionally eaten on Saint Simon’s Day in Tuscany. It is traditional to eat roasted chestnuts in Portugal on St. Martin’s Day.

Always served as part of the New Year menu in Japan, chestnuts represent both success and hard times—mastery and strength.  The Japanese chestnut was in cultivation before rice and the Chinese chestnut possibly for 2,000 to 6,000 years.

American Indians were eating chestnuts long before European immigrants introduced their stock to America, and before the arrival of chestnut blight. In some places, such as the Appalachian Mountains, one-quarter of hardwoods were chestnuts. Mature trees often grew straight and branch-free up to 100 feet, averaging up to 5 ft in diameter. For three centuries, most barns and homes east of the Mississippi River were made from it.

Soon after that, though, the American chestnuts were nearly wiped out by chestnut blight. The discovery of the blight fungus on some Asian chestnut trees planted on Long Island, New York, was made public in 1904. Within 40 years, the nearly four billion-strong American chestnut population in North America was devastated; only a few clumps of trees remained in Michigan, Wisconsin, California and the Pacific Northwest.

chestnutDue to disease, American chestnut wood almost disappeared from the market for decades, although quantities can still be obtained as reclaimed lumber. Today, they only survive as single trees separated from any others (very rare), and as living stumps, or “stools”, with only a few growing enough shoots to produce seeds shortly before dying. This is just enough to preserve the genetic material used to engineer an American chestnut tree with the minimal necessary genetic input from any of the disease-immune Asiatic species. Efforts started in the 1930s are still ongoing to repopulate the country with these trees in the United States. In the 1970s, geneticist Charles Burnham began back-breeding Asian chestnut into American chestnut populations to confer blight resistance with the minimum difference in genes. In the 1950s, the Dunstan chestnut was developed in Greensboro, N.C., and constitutes the majority of blight-free chestnuts produced in the United States annually.

Today, the nut’s demand outstrips supply.


Resource: Wikipedia

By |2017-10-03T15:19:55+00:00October 3rd, 2017|Profiles|0 Comments