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With Chestnuts at Nella Chestnut Farm

STORY BY KATRINA EMERY
IMAGES BY KATRINA EMERY AND NOLAN CALISCH

It’s hard to find, the chestnut farm. Tucked away down a long road, it’s nestled in a faraway corner of the Fruit Loop, near Hood River. There are no signs, but come harvest time, the farm is still bustling, with neat piles of chopped wood that’s ready to roast chestnuts. Behind the orchard, a sweet sign stating “Nella” leans against a wooden hut and beckons visitors inside. There, bags of already-harvested chestnuts and a scale invite us to pay on the honor system and take what we want. Or we can carefully harvest our own from beneath the lines of neat trees.

The chestnuts start as big burrs, tucked away like rolled hedgehogs. Once plucked out, the shiny nut is irresistible to touch —- smooth under the thumb, a perfect size and weight, and velvety brown. But before they’re free of the thick burr casing, they can cause a painful sting.

“Watch out for those,” Bernardo Nella says, laughing at the memory of his first time on the farm. He fumbles around with the burrs, exclaiming, “You gotta wear, like, gloves or something!” Now he’s an old pro, but it was the former owner that finally showed him the secret: feet. “You step on the burr and pop the nut out with your feet. Then you kick the burr at least a good foot away, I recommend, or you still risk getting pricked.” The spikes are a good half-inch long — and sharp.

Bernardo found himself on the farm because he wanted a bigger home. Living in Hood River in a small house, it was time for a change. His brother lived in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he had a Christmas tree farm at the time, and Bernardo liked that idea: something with a little bit of land. He knew the chestnut farm was for him the minute he stepped on it. The 10 acres were dotted with chestnut trees, a small pond, a farmhouse just the right size, and the fresh Neal Creek running through it.

Bernardo is Canadian, but his family has roots in Italy, where chestnuts are revered. His dad grew up in a mountain valley in the town of Carisolo, Trentino, two hours north of Verona. From age 14–20, Bernardo spent his winters living there. The chestnut grows easily in the Italian climate and has been tended on mountain slopes for centuries. Every year, harvesters throw the traditional castagnata party in honor of the humble nut, with wine flowing and chestnuts roasting in large pans over open fires. Standing in his new chestnut farm, all the memories came bubbling up for Bernardo, and he knew it was the place for him.

Bernardo moved in, tore up the carpet to reveal hardwood floors, then turned his attention to the trees. “The trees want to turn into bushes,” he explains, which is just what they had done. He eventually trimmed and shaped them into a simple orchard, and his chestnut farm was in business.

Today, he cares for about 250 trees, keeping them carefully pruned and sparingly watered. The variety is a Japanese-European hybrid called Colossal, great for their size, sweetness, and ease of peeling. They’re easy to grow, as well, as they like rocky soil that keeps well-drained in the mild Hood River climate. He’s never gotten around to getting certified organic, but he doesn’t spray, noting that it took three years for the grass to grow back from the former owner’s chemical sprayings. The occasional mole swings by as an unwelcome visitor, as they love to nibble on chestnut tree roots and leave their telltale dirt mounds around, but overall, the nuts are simple to grow. Bernardo sums up the process: “The trees grow, and chestnuts grow and fall off. It’s that simple.”

Simple to grow, but still a challenge to harvest, as he found out that first day. The work begins in early October, before any leaves have fallen and the ground is patterned with burrs. Workers harvest the nuts regularly, but the farm is also open to nut-scavenging visitors every day in the fall. Inside the wooden hut in the back of the orchard, guests will find a scale and a deposit box for the honor system version of U-pick.

By the first week in November, the other farms on the Fruit Loop are resting the fields and closing the barns, but at Nella, it’s time for the best party of the year: the Castagnata — or Chestnut Harvest Celebration.

Bernardo’s dad, Augusto, comes every year to help. Gus mans the roaster with a giant metal pan, roasting chestnuts to perfection and offering them around. The roasting is punctuated by wine-tasting from local vintners, served in the wooden hut. In Italy, they’d offer a dark red, sparkling spumante, but as that’s not as well known here, Bernardo lets the wineries pair their favorites.

The orchard is a beautiful place to wander, kicking around for loose chestnuts in the leaves or stopping by the pond to admire its waters. Guests can also pick up bags of nuts if they prefer not to find their own among the trees.

Many of the nuts visitors take home are bound for Thanksgiving feasts, in stuffing recipes. To prepare chestnuts, you can roast, boil, bake, or even microwave them. Whatever method you choose, you’ll need to score the shells by marking an X with a sharp knife. This keeps them from exploding.

Bernardo suggests chestnut soup as an easy and delicious starting point. It’s a delicate puree of boiled and peeled chestnuts, celery, carrots, onions, and broth. “To me —” Bernardo builds up a sigh, but is unable to find the words — “it’s really good,” he finishes simply.

But his favorite treat is something entirely different.

“Every chestnut, from the moment it gets pollinated, dreams of becoming a marron glacé.” These delicate candies have been made in France since the time of the Crusades, then likely improved upon in later centuries with the addition of glacé, the glazing. In a process that takes more than 20 steps and up to four days, chestnuts are turned into a delicate sugar — or candied chestnuts. Bernardo claims that one probably has to be in France and be French to make them correctly, but he finds them in specialty stores, sold in packages like chocolate. “Humans have different dreams — a firefighter, an astronaut. But all chestnuts dream of this.”

On the farm, his chestnuts might not live out their whispered dreams of turning into pure sugar, but it’s hard to imagine a better second-place than the castagnata. Roasting chestnuts over an open flame, 100 yards from the trees they grew on, half-empty cups of wine in hand, it’s a warm festa on a chilly November weekend.

How to Cook Chestnuts

The most important trick is to cut an X in the shell before cooking, to let out steam. Use a sharp knife and be careful. Generally, one pound of fresh chestnuts yields about two cups of shelled nuts. When cooked, the shells will burst open, and should be easy to slide off. The chestnut inside will be soft.

Roasting Place the X-ed nuts in a pan over a fire, with one teaspoon oil or butter drizzled over each pound of nuts. They’ll take only a few moments, so watch close.

Baking Place the X-ed nuts on a cookie sheet and sprinkle with water. Bake at 400°F 25–30 minutes. To help split the shells after baking, wrap the nuts in a paper towel and squeeze or roll to help the shell break loose, keeping them wrapped for about five minutes. (Be careful, they’re hot!)

Boiling Cover the X-ed nuts with water and boil 20–25 minutes. Bernardo recommends taking them out of the water 10 at a time for peeling — the longer they dry out, the harder they are to peel. They should be soft enough to puree, if needed. (If not, boil longer.)

Grilling Place the X-ed nuts inside foil on the grill over high heat. You can also use a grill basket, or a pie tin with holes punched in it. Allow 10–15 minutes to cook, then wrap in newspaper or a paper towel and roll to help break up the shell.

Microwaving Using a microwave-safe plate, cook the chestnut at 30 second intervals until the shell peels back from the nut, up to 4 or so minutes.

To Eat Fresh Glaze the shelled, cooked nuts with butter, brown sugar, salt, spices, or herbs.

To Store Fresh or cooked and shelled chestnuts can be stored in a plastic bag in the fridge or freezer —cool and airtight is the key. Bernardo likes to store his fresh chestnuts in a bucket of sand. He once kept them stored that way, in a cool place, from harvest until Christmas, and they were as fresh as ever!

Simple Chestnut Soup

(for vegan version, omit the butter and cream)

Ingredients

2 tablespoons butter or olive oil
2 carrots, minced
1 small onion, minced
2 celery stalks, minced
6 cups broth, chicken or vegetable
1/4 cup your favorite fresh herb (parsley, thyme, rosemary, etc.), chopped
12 ounces cooked and peeled chestnuts (any method, though roasting or grilled adds a nice flavor)
1/4 cup cream
salt and pepper to taste

Recipe

In a large soup or stock pot, sauté the minced carrots, onion, and celery in oil or butter until soft. Add broth, herbs, and chestnuts, and bring to a boil, then simmer on low 20–30 minutes until chestnuts and vegetables are soft enough to puree. Puree as smooth as you prefer, then finish over low heat with cream, salt, and pepper.

Soup can be made ahead and chilled for up to 2 days.


Katrina Emery lives in Portland and writes about food, farms, and travel for online and print publications. She has never tried a marron glacé, but is positive she’d enjoy it. Find her at www.katrinaemery.com.

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