The once dwindling native American chestnut tree is experiencing a resurgence in popularity due to the growing demand for culinary items made with chestnut flour. Chestnut flour, made from ground chestnuts, is becoming a favored ingredient, known for imparting a sweeter taste to baked goods like bread. The current demand for culinary chestnuts far surpasses the available supply, according to Rural Action, a cooperative nonprofit based in Athens, Ohio. This surge in demand comes after a deadly blight nearly wiped out the American chestnut tree in the early 20th century. However, the cooperative is now working diligently to restore this ecologically and economically valuable species to the region.
The popularity of fresh chestnuts is evident, with sales quickly outpacing supply. Amy Miller, the manager of Route 9 Cooperative, a membership-based nonprofit organization in Appalachian Ohio, explains that they sell out of fresh chestnuts within a few weeks. The remaining 20% of their harvest, which consists of Grade B chestnuts deemed unsellable in their fresh state, is dried, shelled, and ground to produce versatile chestnut flour. Chestnut flour is not only easy to work with but also a good source of nutrients, dietary fiber, protein, and vitamins B and C. It serves as a healthy and nutritious alternative to wheat flour for those seeking gluten-free options.
Despite the high demand, there is still room for more research and experimentation with chestnut flour. Devon Halliday, co-owner of Athens Bread Company, explains that they are exploring different techniques and methods for incorporating chestnut flour into their products. They have even experimented with roasting and freezing chestnuts for future use. The versatility of chestnut flour extends beyond bread, with its potential application in a wide range of dishes, including desserts, pasta, pancakes, waffles, cookies, and cakes.
The cultivation of chestnut trees is relatively straightforward, making it an economically viable option for farmers. These trees thrive on irregular, uneven slopes with acidic or well-drained sandy soil, making the Appalachian region of the U.S. an ideal location for their growth. Chestnut trees not only offer economic benefits to farmers but also contribute to environmental sustainability by adding biodiversity and adapting well to climate mitigation efforts. Farmers can plant chestnut trees on underused or unused land, diversifying their income and minimizing interference with other crops. Other complementary crops, such as blueberries or raspberries, can also be grown alongside chestnut trees.
The rising demand for culinary chestnuts has also sparked interest from the food industry in products like chestnut beer and chestnut whiskey. A brewery in Columbus has already created a chocolate and chestnut barley bourbon ale using chestnuts from Rural Action. The positive reception of such products further showcases the versatility and potential marketability of chestnuts.
To meet the increasing demand for chestnut flour, the Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative has secured a grant from North Central SARE. This grant will support farmers and millers in scaling up milling processes and increasing the production of climate-resilient chestnuts. The collaborative aims to identify high-quality milling equipment and best practices that are economically viable. They are also working on developing a business plan for processing Grade B chestnuts.
The future looks promising for chestnut flour as researchers, farmers, and millers continue to explore its potential applications. Feedback from bakers, chefs, and brewers will play a crucial role in refining and marketing fine chestnut flour. The Appalachian Staple Foods Collaborative remains committed to distributing chestnut flour and seeking innovative recipes and ideas to further promote the use of this versatile ingredient.