Chestnuts used to be a very British Christmas tradition, with tons of chestnuts consumed every year for Christmas. In fact, one of the most traditional British games is the game of conkers, in which children compete against one another with specially prepared and hardened horse chestnuts, threaded through the middle with a string.
Today, most British import their Christmas chestnuts from France and Portugal, who have a deeper culinary appreciation for them.
American chestnut trees (Castanea dentata) once made up one quarter of all the trees in the forests from Maine to Georgia. Anyone who could get to the woods in the fall could count on nuts for roasting and for stuffing their Thanksgiving turkey. In 1904, however, an imported fungus disease was discovered in New York City. Within 50 years the American chestnut tree had been nearly wiped out.
This was a catastrophe, as American chestnut trees grew extraordinarily quickly, produced straight, rot-resistant lumber, and were an excellent source of food, both for humans and for domesticated animals. Apparently, the importation of Japanese chestnut trees, and their subsequent distribution nationwide via mail order, led to the spread of the fungus... which led, incidentally, to the first Plant Quarantine laws in the United States.
Ironically enough, it appears that the fast-growing nature of American chestnuts may have been their downfall, straining the plant, cracking its bark, and leaving it vulnerable to infection. Scientists are trying to restore the American chestnut by encouraging mutations that might be blight resistant. How are they doing this? Two words.
The American Chestnut Foundation has also started a "chestnut dating program", hooking up eligible young American chestnut trees with well-bred prospective mates. Bringing back the American chestnut will take a long time, however, and all the requirements for a thriving American chestnut industry aren't yet in place.
All this explains, in part, why I am sitting here eating delecately sweet Chinese chestnuts which I bought by the bag in front of a local Japanese market.
The Japanese have a strong, animistic appreciation for the ephemeral, flowing nature of the seasons, and appreciate chestnuts as a symbol of that change. They usually buy chestnuts from streetside vendors during fall and winter, and eat them both whole and in several of their distinctive fall/winter dishes, in snacks and deserts, and in the traditional dish of kuri-gohan, rice cooked with chestnuts and sake.
Obviously, there's more to this nut than meets the eye...