You’ve heard of chestnuts roasting on an open fire. The Modesto area also grows them

A few miles east of Modesto grows a nut that’s rare in California but rich in Christmas tradition.

The Avila family has six acres of chestnuts on Albers Road a little south of Milnes Road. You’re welcome to come out and buy some from the 2019 harvest, which runs to mid-October. The business also sells online.

Joe Avila planted the first trees there in 1984 because he had loved eating chestnuts in his native Portugal. Today, the Chestnut Farm, as it’s called, has customers of other nationalities with fond memories of their own.

“It reminds them of home, of wherever home is,” said Joe’s wife, Jenni Avila, during a visit last week by The Modesto Bee. They run the business with their son, Shane Avila, and daughter and son-in-law, Laci and Kenny Anderson. It is in addition to the family landscape maintenance business.

The Chestnut Growers of America lists one other producer in Stanislaus County: Amaral Chestnut Orchard, north of Waterford. It also sells online and at the farm.

Small numbers

A mere 2,185 acres of cultivated chestnuts turned up nationwide in the U.S. Census of Agriculture for 2017. California was third behind Michigan and Florida. That same year, California had about 1.03 million acres of almonds and about 335,000 acres of walnuts. Stanislaus is among the leaders in both of the major nuts.

Wild chestnut trees once thrived in a belt from Mississippi to Maine. They fed wildlife, Native Americans and European settlers, and they produced lumber. A blight fungus struck around 1900, and most of the trees were gone by 1940.

Joe Avila planted blight-resistant varieties that today yield eight to nine tons of chestnuts per year. The orchard has sprinklers supplied by the Oakdale Irrigation District. Wind does the pollinating, unlike the bee-dependent almond industry.

Like almonds and walnuts, chestnuts have an outer hull and an inner shell surrounding the edible kernel. But the chestnut hull is spiky and the shell is extra hard, making for laborious handling.

Most of the mature chestnuts fall from the trees during harvest. The Avilas pick them up by hand for a while. As the volume increases, they push the nuts into rows on the ground with a machine much like those used in almond and walnut harvesting.

Another machine picks up the nuts and knocks the spiky hulls to the ground. The Avilas bring in a tree-shaker, another familiar device in the area, to get the last chestnuts off the branches.

The chestnuts are sorted by size by the family and a couple of seasonal workers, then placed in cold storage at the farm. The 2019 prices range from $3 for a pound of the smallest nuts to $4 for the largest. Bigger nuts mean less labor overall for the buyer.

Handling tips

Buyers of almonds and walnuts in the shell can bring them home, crack them open with a hand utensil, and start snacking. Chestnuts, not so fast. They must be cooked to be edible, by boiling, roasting or microwaving. And be sure to score them with a knife, so they don’t explode in the oven.

Chestnuts have a slightly sweet flavor, with less fat than most nuts but more carbohydrates.

“They’re different, not like almonds and walnuts,” Jenni Avila said. She told of cooking them with mushrooms and pasta, and of sautéing them with butter to make an ice cream topping. Boiled chestnuts have a garbanzo-like texture suited to vegan recipes, she said.

And then there’s chestnut stuffing, a Thanksgiving and Christmas treat for many.

Buyers can store chestnuts in the refrigerator for a few weeks, or freeze them.

Early to market

Chestnut acreage might be small, but the state has the advantage of an early harvest compared with other growing regions, said Roger Duncan, county director for the University of California Cooperative Extension.

“We would be one of earliest in the world market, so there is some price advantage to it,” he said.

The Avilas ship within the continental United States, sending the 10 or 18-pound boxes by priority mail.

The farm has customers of several backgrounds – Korean, Italian, Vietnamese and more – that have traditions of wild or cultivated chestnuts. Among the regulars are a Hayward-area family who had fled the war in Bosnia in the 1990s. They bring 25-pound bags home and roast the nuts in their backyard.

The Chestnut Farm is at 2450 Albers Road. Call ahead before visiting, 209-522-3250.

Amaral Chestnut Orchard is at 1009 Tim Bell Road, north of Waterford. Owners Sam and Maria Amaral also ask visitors to call ahead, 209-874-3237.

John Holland covers breaking news and has been with The Modesto Bee since 2000. He has covered agriculture for the Bee and at newspapers in Sonora and Visalia. He was born and raised in San Francisco and has a journalism degree from UC Berkeley.