Fish Rock Road is a rugged road that stretches between Anderson Valley and the coast. About ten minutes past the point where asphalt turns to dirt, you arrive at the remote and beautiful Zeni Ranch, owned by the Zeni family since 1918. It has dry farmed Zinfandel vines, cut-your-own Christmas trees, breeder pigs of various breeds, and a collection of hale and hearty chestnut trees that brings a mix of people flocking to the ranch the first Saturday of every November.
It’s a mild fall day when we arrive for the annual Chestnut Gathering, a combination community potluck, sustainable agriculture seminar, and pick-your-own chestnut sale. Couples, families with their kids, and even a large group from San Francisco are scattered under the trees filling their bags and buckets.
I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it can be to collect chestnuts, wrapped in their spiky jackets (“burrs”) and scattered under the trees like startled pufferfish. If I’d remembered I’d’ve brought gloves, but we manage to gently extricate the dark shiny nuts from their protective coatings anyway.
They say plant fruit trees for your children; plant chestnut trees for your grandchildren. It can take more than a generation for the trees to produce a really robust harvest. That’s not an issue here, though, as the trees have been around a good long time. The three types of chestnuts on the ranch include Collosal, Marone, and Navadas.
Raymond Zeni, now co-owner of the property with his brother and sister, guides the annual tour, sharing stories about his family and their various enterprises. At one point the ranch boasted a bar and bonded winery, complete with wine cave dug out of the hillside by his dad’s four older brothers. His grandmother would charge city folks $1/day to come up to spend the night—wine, lunch, and dinner included.
Chestnuts are high in carbs and low in fats, but also the only nut that offers a relatively high amount of vitamin C. Dried chestnuts can be boiled later to revive them, or milled to create a flour good for breads and pastas. And you can always roast them in a tinfoil packet for 30–45 minutes in a 425˚ oven (pierce and soak for 1 minute first—the steam is key to well cooked chestnuts). Peel, dip in olive oil and salt, and enjoy!
Creamy Chestnut Soup
In 2T butter and 2T olive oil saute:
ó cup sliced shallots or onions
2 cups chopped carrots
2 sticks of celery (or more)
2 cups veggie stock
2 cups peeled/roasted chestnuts
Cook until chestnuts are soft~20 or more minutes.
Blend until smooth and reheat with:
1-2 cups heavy cream
ó cup dry Sherry
Season to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish bowls with freshly grated nutmeg.