Tim Chilcote, a freelance writer and a Great Lakes enthusiast, takes us on a visit to the DeKlein family orchard. Get your taste buds ready, because it’s time for chestnuts!
Mark DeKlein is heir to DeKlein Orchards, a family-run chestnut farm located southwest of Grand Rapids. I first met Mark at a tailgate in East Lansing when this former Sparty mascot arrived on campus with a burlap sack and a homemade roaster, an old keg with Roasted Chestnuts painted on the side.
After starting a fire and arranging the roasting and cooling pans, Mark meticulously cut slits along the hard outer shell of the chestnuts before throwing them on the roaster. The slits keep pressure from building since chestnuts will fire off the roaster like missiles if it isn’t released. Once cooked and slightly cooled, the shells peel off easily, exposing a meaty inside. Most tailgaters compared the flavor to a rich, nutty carrot. Mark says he prefers to eat them roasted, but grinding the chestnut into flour for breading fish, chicken, beef, or venison is great, and he’s quick to point out the nutritional benefits and the fact that chestnut flour is gluten free.
A staple of European and Asian diets, chestnuts are finding their way back into the U.S. “Chestnuts just haven’t been available enough for our consumption. We plan to change that,” Mark said. “Michigan is one of the best kept secrets of the county; in reality it’s a garden. The west side of the state is virtually California with winters. We have very good, well-drained soil, diverse enough to handle vegetables and berries, row crops, and fruit trees.” And with the recent emphasis on urban farming, Mark is “investing in chestnuts as a future in agriculture. It’s grain that grows toward the sky, some over 200 feet, consuming very little space.”
Mark is a fan of Jolly Pumpkin’s experimental chestnut beer and any other chestnut recipe variation Michiganders can come up with. “It’s not that you can’t find chestnuts anywhere else, but it’s usually the stories, fun, and the passion that keeps our customers loyal.” DeKlein Orchards has 20 acres of Colossal and Chinese variety chestnut trees, and early October is harvest time. For recipes ranging from soups to stuffing to just plain chestnuts, visit http://www.dekleineorchards.com/chestnutrecipes.htm. In addition to chestnuts, DeKleine Orchards grows sweet and tart cherries, walnuts, hazelnuts, and peaches, and produces 100 gallons of maple syrup a year, which Mark highly recommends.