Chestnuts are a firm favourite in many cultures. And so they should be! These versatile nuts are lower in fat than most nuts, high in protein and offer a variety minerals.
You can find chestnut trees in many parks throughout the Waikato. These beautiful, often well established trees provide a little elegance not to mention shade for park goers and the added bonus of chestnuts in autumn. As you drive north on Gordonton road you will pass a block of majestic chestnut trees. This block, divided into three properties, has over 500 mature chestnut trees which were transplanted there 20 years ago.
Dianne and Mark Ransley brought their property which has just under 40 trees a year and a half ago. “The trees are beautiful” says Mark who says one of their favourite pastimes is to sit under the trees enjoying long lunches with family and friends. “We’re the newbies” says Mark “we wouldn’t have known what to do without the guidance of Jackie and Godfrey”.
Jackie and Godfrey Larsen, who have the biggest property on the block with around 500 trees, have been there for nine years. “We used to drive past on our way to the beach and we loved the look of it” remembers Jackie who says the property offered them a great hobby for their retirement.
Because chestnuts do not have the long tradition in New Zealand as they do in Asia and Europe there is a limited domestic market. Mark sold much of their crop to local Asian shops last year but is working on a co op to export this year’s crop.
Although not registered organic all three properties farm them using organic principals. The trees have been planted quite far apart to allow for plenty of light, this also means some stock can be run in the same paddocks. The Ransleys have a few alpacas who munch on the chestnuts and are flourishing on the diet.
Chestnuts flower just before Christmas, “when they are in flower they release a strong and quite unpleasant smell” Dianne says, but this is over by Christmas day she smiles. The flowers then transforms into chestnuts, which are housed in a prickly outer case called a burr. About mid March the burrs burst open and fall to the ground and this is when the work starts! “Nasty little hedgehogs” is how Mark and Dianne describe the burrs. “We double glove when its harvest time”. Whilst the Ransleys harvest their own trees, Jackie and Godfrey have to get helpers in to cope with their crop.
The flavour of chestnuts is comparable to kumara. Whilst they can be eaten in their raw state they taste astringent and so they are most commonly cooked. The dry “mouth-puckering” taste of chestnuts is due to the pellicle, which appears as a secondary shell when you have removed the outer shell, so it is important to remove it. Jackie suggests using a heavy duty peeler to remove the shell and pellicle and she freezes the peeled nuts to use throughout the year.
“Chestnuts are traditionally a peasant food throughout Asia and Europe and have been described as brown rice that grows on trees” Jackie explains.
Perhaps one of the reasons they are not widely eaten in New Zealand is the effort required to prepare them, they are fiddly and as Dianne says “you have to have patience. When you have made a meal with chestnuts as an ingredient it has been made with love”. Chestnuts are a great substitute for potato, are delicious in soups and stews, cakes or just roasted – make sure you score them if you are roasting them or they may explode. Chestnut flour is also a great gluten free flour and
For information on growing, harvesting and using chestnuts, visit the Chestnut Council of New Zealand’s website www.nzcc.org.nz