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A Sweet Rebirth

With the help of two hardy trees in California, the chestnut is making a comeback. You haven't tasted anything yet.

November 05, 2008|RUSS PARSONS

On a hill just outside the Gold Rush town of Nevada City, Calif., about an hour northeast of Sacramento, stands a sweet 1890s Victorian farmhouse surrounded by several acres of venerable-looking gardens.

There are craggy cherry and plum trees and an apple tree so old it's little more than a hollowed-out stump that somehow still manages to sprout green branches. The grapevine that covers a backyard arbor has a trunk at least a foot around.

But pride of place belongs to a pair of chestnut trees, probably 60 feet tall and at least a yard across. It's not often that a couple of trees are singled out in real estate ads, but these were. And no wonder -- from these two trees sprang most of the chestnuts now grown in the United States.

Chestnuts in California? Certainly, it's easy to think of them as strictly an East Coast nostalgia food, part and parcel with frosty city sidewalks and Jack Frost nipping at whatever exposed body parts he can find.

But in fact, these nuts have a long history in the Golden State, one that a handful of growers are struggling to keep alive. And if all you've ever had are stale imported supermarket chestnuts -- many of which are even moldy -- these California nuts can be a revelation, delicately sweet and slightly chewy.

At one time, the chestnut tree was one of the most numerous on the North American continent. It is estimated that they accounted for between a quarter and a third of all the trees that grew in the huge forest that once blanketed the area from northern Georgia to New England.

Then, just after the turn of the last century, the trees began to die. The culprit was a fungal spore that probably had hitchhiked on a Chinese chestnut specimen tree imported by the New York Botanical Garden.

The chestnut blight spread like a wind-driven wildfire. The carnage almost defies imagination. Within five years, it had killed most of the chestnuts in the New York area. By the 1950s, only a few isolated trees remained on the entire continent.

Between 3 billion and 4 billion trees had died. That was, as Susan Freinkel points out in her splendid new book "American Chestnut," "enough trees to fill 9 million acres. Enough trees to cover Yellowstone National Park 1,800 times over. Enough trees to give two to every person on the planet at that time."

Imports at market

Chestnuts are found across a wide swath of the Northern Hemisphere, and other species are not as susceptible to the blight as the American. Today, almost all the fresh chestnuts you find at the market are imported, mostly from Italy, where they are harvested from state-managed forests. They are also imported from China and Korea.

But there is an increasing number of chestnut farmers in this country as well, growing trees that are blight-resistant crosses between Asian and European species. It's a small success, but a success nonetheless -- and that is rare in the story of chestnuts in America.

So far, the number of farmers is still small and their orchards, for the most part, are still young. There probably aren't more than 1,000 acres of chestnuts grown in all of California. A 2006 survey by the University of Missouri Center for Agroforestry found that most American chestnut growers have fewer than 10 acres of trees and have been in business for less than 10 years. More than a third of them are so new that they have yet to make their first sale.

By far the predominant chestnut variety in the United States is the Colossal, and the original trees are the two still standing beside that Victorian farmhouse just outside Nevada City.

Those trees date from the 1870s and are the creation of a pioneering California nurseryman named Felix Gillet, who was ranked by his contemporaries with the great Luther Burbank. A Frenchman who came to Nevada City in the 1850s and worked as a barber to gather a grubstake, he bought land on a dry, rocky hillside that nobody else wanted, carted in water, cleared the stones and named the place Barren Hill Nursery. There he developed important varieties of hazelnuts and walnuts and even strawberries.

One of his biggest contributions was the Colossal chestnut, a cross he developed between French and Japanese species.

When Gillet died in 1908, his friend Benjamin Tonella bought many of the nursery's trees, including the twin Colossals, and carted them across town to his home. The house has passed through many hands since then, but the trees remain.

In California, there are scattered plantings of chestnuts throughout the north, including the Gold Country, but most come from the "nut belt" around Stockton.

That's where Greg Girolami and his brother Grant have 40 acres of them, along with 300 acres of walnuts and 100 acres of cherries. They sell most of their chestnuts to Asian markets in California, trying to get in their sales before the cheaper imports arrive.

Their grandfather Cesar di Martini began farming the area in the 1920s, and one of the first things he planted was chestnuts from cuttings he'd brought with him from Italy.

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