WNC farmer, chef, brewer upholding ‘chestnuts roasting on an open fire’ holiday tradition

Tiana Kennell

Asheville Citizen Times

ASHEVILLE – Many may recognize “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” as a line from the lyrics of “The Christmas Song,” but fewer probably know how a chestnut looks, smells or tastes.

The classic holiday tune, written by Mel Tormé and Bob Wells in 1945, remains a part of American tradition. However, the American chestnut tree is virtually nonexistent and a mystery.

“I’d never had chestnuts in my life and wondered what that Christmas song, like everyone else, why is that even in the song?” said Ron Fritz, owner of Mountain Grown Chestnuts in Burnsville. “Then, (I) discovered this was a huge part of Americana back before this blight that wiped them all out.”

American chestnut trees succumbed to an invasive pathogen from Asia at the turn of the 20th century, resulting in the deadly blight, according to The American Chestnut Foundation, an Asheville-based group dedicated to developing a blight-resistant American chestnut tree through breeding, biotechnology and biocontrol. Though the species isn’t extinct, it remains in a cycle in which it may grow as stump sprouts but inevitably die from the disease.  

Fritz hopes to revive the seasonal tradition by bringing a similar species of chestnut trees back to Western North Carolina.

Chestnut restaurant in downtown Asheville and Fonta Flora Brewery in Nebo are on a similar mission to bring awareness to the species by offering a dessert and craft beer made with chestnuts harvested from Fritz’s orchard.

“I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Europe and, especially in Italy and Spain, walking around markets, it’s so prevalent everywhere having chestnuts roasting in open markets and people buying them like crazy,” said Todd Boera, co-founder of Fonta Flora Brewery. “It’s part of a missing thing here, for as popular and prolific as the chestnut tree once was in Appalachia, to not have any connection with the chestnut has always made me think.”

Fritz, who worked with PepsiCo as senior principal scientist for 12 years, became interested in chestnut agriculture as a hobby. He and his wife acquired a property in Yancey County and in his research on how to make use of the land, he learned about American chestnut trees’ history.

“What this area looked like 120 years ago is so different from right now because these enormous trees, called ‘The Redwood of the East,’ were everywhere, especially in the Southern Appalachians and the Blue Ridge where our property is,” Fritz said. “In the Southern Appalachian and in our county … about 50% of the forest canopy was American chestnuts, so they dominated. And there were areas around here that were 100%.”

Several years ago, Fritz planted the first crop of a blight-resistant American-Chinese hybrid chestnut tree called Dunstan, which he said is “the only patented chestnut tree and closest to the true, pure American chestnut tree of the 1800s.”

Mountain Grown Chestnuts orchard now has about 74 trees.

“I’m sort of bringing my science background to this and doing everything I can to bring back the local delicacy,” Fritz said.

The orchard’s high elevation (nearly 2,600 feet) and soil acidity are factors aiding favorable conditions for the trees to grow, he said. The steep mountainous slopes allow rainwater to flow downhill, which is ideal as the trees prefer drier terrain.  

In September, Mountain Grown Chestnuts’ first marketable harvest became available but soon sold out as demand was high and the batch was small at about 162 pounds.

“As I’ve found, there’s big demand for it,” Fritz said. “The people around here, it’s been passed down through generations how great chestnuts are, so they sort of know the background, so I use them as my ‘expert’ panels. I’m trying to get the sweetest possible nut.”

Now retired, Fritz’s plans to increase production in hopes of larger harvests in future seasons. Next year, he’s aiming to harvest 400-550 pounds of chestnuts, and in five years, he intends to harvest 2 tons of chestnuts. However, production depends on how much the independent farmer can take on and how the chestnut trees will fare under conditions, like the weather.

“Size is important for management, and I want to be able to manage this well,” Fritz said. “It’s a niche market. I want the best nut. I’m not into it for making money – I’d like to break even – but to create something special.”

Mountain Grown Chestnuts will offer preorders of chestnuts next year. For updates and details, visit mgchestnuts.com.

Roasting chestnuts

Chestnuts may be consumed raw but they’re sweeter if roasted, Fritz said.

“It’s the sweetest nut on the planet,” Fritz said. “It’s a very sweet aroma like if you’re baking cookies.”

Working with chestnuts can be challenging but rewarding if done right. The first tip is to score the chestnuts before roasting.

“You have to score them, or they’ll pop — explode,” Fritz said. “Put them on a cookie sheet and put them in the oven. Then there are more elaborate recipes.”

Mallory Foster, the pastry chef at Chestnut restaurant, took on the challenge to prepare a dessert using chestnuts.

The result was a Golden Milk Panna Cotta made with coconut milk and Spicewalla’s golden milk spice mix. The dessert is served topped with moist, dark gingerbread and poached pears. Oat streusel is added for crunch and pomegranate for acid. It’s finished with candied chestnuts.

The Golden Milk Panna Cotta will be available at the restaurant, 48 Biltmore Ave., through November, at least.

Foster recalls witnessing street vendors roasting them in New York City but had never personally worked with them before.

“They take a shocking amount of work to prepare,” she said.

She describes chestnuts as meatier, softer and starchier than other nuts and with a texture like an acorn.

“It kind of smells like Christmas,” Foster said. “It’s earthy, familiar, toasty. … It has that black walnut smell to them when you roast them but much less intense. There’s a roasty, toasty holiday smell to me.”

Fonta Flora Brewery’s Bread Tree, dubbed after the chestnut trees’ nickname, is a brown ale brewed with chestnuts that are roasted in a wood-fired oven. The chestnut adds a creaminess to the brew and bready and dark fruit aromatics.

Since the Bread Tree’s first release in 2016, the brewery used another regional farm to source chestnuts but after it went out of business earlier this year, the team was left without a supplier. Two weeks before production was scheduled to begin, the brewery was directed to Fritz allowing them to purchase the chestnuts and carry on the tradition of releasing the seasonal beer ahead of the holidays.

The beer has a greater purpose, too.

“The chestnut is definitely something that’s difficult to find so you don’t see it very often, and then quite difficult to work with since no one’s really offering chestnuts that are out of the shell,” Boera said. “It’s pretty painstaking to go through working with them but our mission from when we started in 2013, our slogan is ‘brewing beer with a sense of place and agricultural purpose.’ Nothing explains the sense of place better than the chestnut.”

Last year, they used 125 pounds of chestnuts, and about 75 pounds this year.

Bread Tree is scheduled for an early-December release and will be available at Fonta Flora Brewing’s taprooms in Nebo, Morganton and Charlotte, and at regional bottle shops and retailers. It’s expected to have a 5.8% alcohol by volume.

“I get sappy every year working with chestnuts thinking about what the Appalachian looked like years ago and what the forest would’ve been like, so it’s a pretty important ingredient for us to use and to get people thinking about,” Boera said.

Tiana Kennell is the food and dining reporter for the Asheville Citizen Times, part of the USA Today Network. Email her at tkennell@citizentimes.com or follow her on Twitter/Instagram @PrincessOfPage. Please help support this type of journalism with a subscription to the Citizen Times.

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