The chestnut is breaking out of its shell as a Christmas tradition and gaining a year-round reputation as a low-fat, natural way to treat certain health conditions.
Certain ethnic groups have long known that chestnuts can ease circulatory problems like varicose veins and phlebitis. Wellness-minded U.S. consumers are just now rediscovering the nut's health properties, as well as its unique flavor.
“The chestnut is very moist on the inside. When you cook them and peel them, it's almost like eating a sweet potato,” said Greg Miller, owner of the Empire Chestnut Co., Carrollton, Ohio.
Most chestnuts are imported from Italy or Asia, and contain less than 5% fat by dry weight, compared to other nuts, which can be 50% fat or more. While they have little protein, chestnuts are the only nut that has vitamin C. Retail sales of raw chestnuts peak during the fall and winter months, though Los Angeles-based Melissa's World Variety Produce is rolling out a 7-ounce package of peeled, cooked chestnuts.
Supply shortfalls and poor currency exchange rates this year mean per-pound prices could range from $10 to $12. The premium nature of the nuts will require produce managers to carefully set and monitor displays, Miller said.
“Fresh chestnuts have a lot of moisture when they come off the tree, and they're susceptible to mold,” he said. “You have to keep them cool, but not wet — no misters.”