Nothing says fall for me like chestnuts do. On my way to school as a first grader I filled my pockets with them on crisp October mornings, a habit I continued as an adult. Those were the inedible chestnuts from the horse chestnut tree, Aesculus hippocastanum.
The best moment for me was always taking the chestnuts out of their thick, fleshy burrs and let the cool fruit with a surface like polished mahogany slowly warm in my cusped hand. After a few days the chestnuts lost their luster but how many times until then did I run my fingers over them and marvel at their color before the chestnuts eventually shriveled and hardened and I had to discard them with a heavy heart.
I also loved the chestnut bloom in May. There were several stately chestnut trees around the library of the university in Bonn where I studied, a pair of pink-blooming ones right in front of the window. Often I just sat there for minutes on end, taking in the outburst of color instead of sticking my nose in the book.
My visit to Germany last May was the first during the chestnut bloom since I moved away 15 years ago. Horse chestnuts are very common street trees in Germany so there was chestnut bloom everywhere. In Bonn, I always pay a visit to “my” chestnut trees at the library. Seeing them in full bloom, just as gorgeous as I remembered, I became quite emotional. My friend, whom I have known since the first day of university, asked, “So what’s up with those particular trees?” I could not say anything. The two trees suddenly stood for everything I miss about Germany.
Fall in the northeastern United States is beautiful, and people travel far just to see the foliage. But there are no chestnut trees, no horse chestnuts to collect in my pockets. The American chestnut, Castanea dentata, unlike the horse chestnut actually a member of the beech family, and producing edible sweet chestnuts, was wiped out by the chestnut blight in the early 20th century. It used to be one of the most important forest trees in eastern North America.
The horse chestnut trees in Europe have their own tragedy. By mid-summer, infestation by the larvae of the horse chestnut leaf miner, a moth that started to spread from Macedonia to all of Europe in the 1980s, turns the white-blooming horse chestnut trees brown and often leafless. I have seen it on visits to Germany in August; it is a sad sight though it does not kill the trees.
In Germany I knew sweet edible chestnuts mainly from stuffing for holiday birds, or as roasted chestnuts from the Christmas market, where they are sold as hand warmers as much as a snack. After I had moved to the United States, because I missed horse chestnuts so much, I started buying sweet edible chestnuts whenever they appeared at local fruit stands and farmers markets here in Pennsylvania. Those chestnuts come from Japanese, or Chinese chestnut trees, which are resistant to the chestnut blight.
During my research for Spoonfuls of Germany I came across several delicious regional chestnut dishes such chestnut soup, chestnut truffles (the recipes for those are included in my book), and chestnut mousse. That’s when my love for the tree also became love for the food.
I had no idea that trees producing edible chestnuts have been grown in Palatinate, a region in southwest Germany, since Roman times. Its Keschdeweg (Chestnut Trail) has put Palatinate on the food tourism map in recent years. Of course I must visit during chestnut harvest so I am seriously considering delaying my next trip to Germany until October.
It’s still a full year away but what’s another year for a lifelong love?