Bites: The comeback of the Virginia chestnut

An online shop opened this month with nuts from a collective of local farms.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Chestnuts
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By the middle of the 20th century, “virtually all chestnut trees were killed by the blight,” according to the Virginia Department of Forestry website.

Now, after decades of near nonexistence, Kim and David Bryant are working to reintroduce the storied nut.

“Our slogan is ‘a taste of history,’” says Kim Bryant of the Lovingston-based Virginia Chestnuts. “A lot of people have never tasted a chestnut.”

The couple—David comes from a cattle farming family, and Kim is hobbyist gardener—was “looking for something that was going to take us into retirement,” says Bryant.

While farming is usually thought of as physically exhausting work, chestnuts are harvested once they fall to the ground, so a machine can pick them up, like golf balls, says Bryant. They also were looking for something no one else was doing.

Photo courtesy of Virginia Chestnuts

Bryant says that 10 years ago when they were first researching getting into the business, about 90 percent of chestnuts were imported from Europe. With today’s emphasis on seasonal and local foods, they focused on bringing something once so prevalent back into the food culture.

By hand, and over a period of a couple years, the Bryants planted 1,500 Dunstan chestnut trees, an American-Chinese hybrid built to resist disease.

This month, their company launched an online shop. Working with five Virginia orchards, the site sells raw chestnuts, starting at $8 for a pound. Bryant recommends storing chestnuts in the refrigerator, where they can last about a month, before roasting them or eating them raw. She says they have the texture of a raw potato but still maintain a nutty flavor.

Bryant likes to make chestnut soup, chestnut-banana bread and candied chestnuts. “It’s kind of like a new food,” she says. “And we’re on the front end of that.”