I planted 4 chestnut trees in 2010. This past fall was the first time they produced any nuts. There wasn’t a ton, but I wanted to try harvesting and processing the nuts by hand to see if it was a viable convenient human food source on a permaculture homestead. Also, I’d never even tried chestnuts.
Chestnuts will fall off the tree when ripe enough to pick, so you don’t need a ladder. You simply pick them up off the ground.
The Chestnuts have a spiky outer covering that requires gloves to handle. If they’ve fallen off the trees, the spiky covering will probably be split, and you’ll be able to see the nuts inside. I used some leather gloves, and I was fine handling the spiky covering. Inside the spiky covering, you will find 1-3 chestnuts.
There is a hard outer shell. The chestnut meat is inside that. If the outer shell is soft the nut is probably bad. So, I just separated the spiky covering from the chestnuts and collected the shells that were decent size and still hard. I brought them inside and put them in a basket until I was ready to cook them.
I was told by two people that chestnuts usually have a worm inside the nut that will eat its way out, leaving a tiny hole and their excrement inside. Yum, sounds appetizing. It turns out that these are chestnut weevil grubs. I was relieved to not find a single hole in the chestnuts I picked.
A few weeks went by, and my chestnuts still sat on the counter waiting to be processed. One morning, I went to the kitchen to make breakfast, and there were what looked like maggots all over the counter and the floor. I didn’t feel much like breakfast anymore. Anyway, I couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. Finally, I figured out that they were chestnut weevil grubs.
I did some research on chestnut weevils, and the management techniques involve spraying and sanitation. I’m not going to spray my trees, so that left sanitation. Sanitation basically involves cleaning up (harvesting) all the chestnuts each year so the weevils can’t complete their lifecycle. I would imagine that that would not totally eliminate the grubs, so this was a big negative in my mind as far as using chestnuts as a human food source.
I left the nuts in a mostly sealed container for another week. I left the lid slightly ajar for air. I let all the worms come out, and they congregated at the bottom. On Halloween, I decided to try to process and cook them. I sorted the nuts with holes and the ones without. I rinsed the nuts.
I took the “good” nuts and made a single deep lengthwise cut with a serrated knife. The serrated knife is important because the nuts are slippery and dangerous otherwise. I saw a lot of people making “X” cuts with paring knives, and that just looked dangerous and tedious to me. My single cut worked fine for me.
There are tons of great chestnut recipes, but I was in a hurry, so I just baked them at 425 for 15 minutes. After they came out of the oven, I placed a towel over the pan for ten minutes to let them cool enough so I could handle them.
After they cooled enough to handle, but were still warm, I pulled the shells apart by hand and pulled out the chestnut. It is important to do this quickly, because if they cool it is much harder to separate the nut meat from the shell. I cut each of the nuts in half, just to make sure I didn’t cook any worms inside. I was a bit paranoid after seeing my kitchen filled with them. I only found one nut that was infested.
Again, I was pressed for time, so I just added some salt to the chestnuts and I took them to a Halloween party I was invited to. They were much sweeter than any nut I’ve ever had. I could see how cooking them in butter and garlic would be excellent. They were really good right out of the oven with just a bit of salt.
Cooked and Shelled Chestnuts
After eating the chestnuts, I can say that they make a tasty and healthy addition to any homestead. The only issue I have is the weevil grubs. I fed the grubs to the chickens, and they loved them. Maybe I could cook them up too? Just kidding.
I started to think about how I could turn the problem (weevil grubs) into the solution. I’ve heard a few permaculturalists make fun of the adage, the problem is the solution. I personally like the saying. I feel like it helps me to look at the problem from a different vantage point. In this case we have grubs that are destroying my chestnuts, chickens that love the grubs, and sanitation as the main control.
Those grubs are a source of extremely healthy protein for my birds. So, I have the idea that next year, I’ll harvest all the nuts, good or bad. I’ll place the good nuts in a container with a lid and a screened bottom, big enough for the worms to fall through, but small enough for the nuts to stay put. I’ll put this container over top of a bucket or another container to catch all the worms. The bad nuts, I’ll simply place in a mostly sealed container to allow the worms to come out. Once I’ve waited three weeks and the worms are out, I’ll feed the worms to the chickens and separate the good and the bad nuts to be cooked.
In the above scenario, I am providing a high protein food to the chickens and performing my sanitation duties at the same time, and then enjoying the clean chestnuts. The problem is the solution.
~ Phil Williams
Phil Williams is a permaculture consultant and designer and creator of the website foodproduction101.com. He is also the author of numerous books, most recently, Fire the Landscaper and Farmer Phil's Permaculture. His website provides useful, timely information for the experienced or beginning gardener, landscaper, or permaculturalist. Phil's personal goals are to build soil, restore and regenerate degraded landscapes, grow and raise an abundance of healthy food of great variety, design and install resilient permaculture gardens in the most efficient manner possible, and teach others along the way.