Sustainability | Land | Ecotrope

Foraging For Wild Chestnuts In Portland

Ecotrope | Oct. 16, 2012 12:01 a.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:29 p.m.

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A very generous Vietnamese woman gave me a handful of her chestnuts after I asked to take a photo of them. She said she boils her chestnuts before peeling them and eating them.

A very generous Vietnamese woman gave me a handful of her chestnuts after I asked to take a photo of them. She said she boils her chestnuts before peeling them and eating them.

Edible chestnuts are falling on streets of Portland, but only a handful of urban foragers are picking them up and eating them. I think I found out why.

The easiest way to get this edible chestnut out of its casing is to roll it around under your foot. That way you don't get pricked by the spines.

The easiest way to get this edible chestnut out of its casing is to roll it around under your foot. That way you don't get pricked by the spines.

Dave Barmon, a member of the Multnomah County Food Policy Council and the urban logger I wrote about last week, gave me some pointers on how to find and eat wild urban chestnuts. So, I went foraging.

One key step is distinguishing them from their non-edible relatives: horse chestnuts and buckeyes.

There are several species of trees with edible chestnuts – American, Chinese, Japanese and European chestnuts are the most common. But their nuts all have similar distinguishing qualities. Their casing is green and/or brown with lots of small spines, and the nuts inside have little tails on them.

This is a mildly poisonous horse chestnut. Don't eat this one!

This is a mildly poisonous horse chestnut. Don't eat this one!

Horse chestnuts, which are not safe to eat, have a smooth casing with fewer, shorter spines. They’re harder to get out of their casing, and they kind of stink. So, it’s pretty easy to tell the difference between the two.

However, finding the edible chestnuts is only part of the challenge. It also takes time and know-how to get at their nutty goodness. They have a thick shell and a horribly bitter skin that both need to be removed if you want to enjoy the flavor of the kernel. The most common ways to shell them is to roast them (on an open fire, perhaps?) or boil them.

I attempted an oven-roasting method with my chestnuts. I set the oven to 425 degrees and left them to toast for around 30 minutes. The instructions I was following told me to peel the shell and skin off the nuts while they were still warm.

I was encouraged when I saw the chestnuts burst out of their shells in the oven. Little did I know...that was by far the easiest part of the shelling process.

I was encouraged when I saw the chestnuts burst out of their shells in the oven. Little did I know…that was by far the easiest part of the shelling process.

For me, that part was nearly impossible. The skin was pretty much glued onto the kernel of the nut, and onto the shell too in some cases. Only one of the dozen or so nuts I roasted actually peeled down to the cream-colored kernel. And even that one took FOREVER.

Maybe I didn’t cook them long enough? Maybe I cooked them too long? Either way, I was left with a big pile of crumbled chestnut shells with delicious nutty goodness hopelessly wedged inside.

Why didn’t it work?

I called John Kallas, director of Portland’s Wild Food Adventures, and asked him what I had done wrong.

There she blows. The one whole chestnut I successfully shelled...next to a pile of failures.

There she blows. The one whole chestnut I successfully shelled…next to a pile of failures.

Turns out, I was following instructions for people who buy “domesticated chestnuts” from the store.

The wild chestnuts have a much tougher skin on them than the ones that are cultivated for consumption, Kallas said. So, you have to take an extra step to get the skin off.

The extra step could involve flash frying the roasted and shelled nut in hot oil or boiling it in water just long enough to soften the skin enough to peel it off without overcooking the nutty goodness.

My right thumb is still sore from attempting to peel the unpeelable nuts. But once it heals, I will probably make another attempt with the ones I haven’t roasted yet. The little bits of roasted chestnut I did manage to pry from their shells were actually quite delicious.

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