While summer might be the prime season for U-pick produce, one Coopersville farm offers a unique U-pick experience in the fall: chestnuts. Winkel Chestnut Farms, at 10788 Garfield St., offers visitors the opportunity to scavenge for chestnuts between the end of September and first two weeks of October.
“You pick the chestnuts off the ground — there is no climbing trees or anything,” said Leslie Winkel. “The burrs on the trees open up and the nuts fall to the ground — it’s like an Easter egg hunt. It’s a great outing for young families with kids.”
Winkel said while the common way to eat chestnuts is roasted — just like it says in the song, “chestnuts roasting on an open fire,” — they also can be boiled and added to veggie, rice or soup dishes, or ground into chestnut flour and used that way.
“What we have found is people who come out to the farm are split into three groups: Europeans, Asians and Americans,” Winkel explained. “Americans really haven’t grown up with chestnuts and don’t really know what to do with them, but European and Asian people, that’s part of their mainstay for centuries. They will boil or cook them typically.”
When cooked, chestnuts have a consistency like baked squash or a baked potato.
“The Europeans dry them and grind them into flour and use them in baked goods — and they are gluten free,” Winkel said. “Cooking them with vegetables or rice dishes is the most common way or boiling them and eating them as a dessert basically.”
If you do want to eat roasted chestnuts, she said make sure to make a slit in the side of each chestnut, so they don’t explode as they cook. “There is a lot of moisture, and they will explode if you don’t do that.”
For many people, chestnuts are a holiday tradition, so proper storage is key. Winkel said chestnuts do need to be refrigerated to ensure they will make it to the November/December holiday season.
Dick Winkel said while recent generations of West Michiganders are less familiar with the chestnut, the tree actually has a history in the Grand Haven and Spring Lake region dating back to the early 1900s.
“When Europeans started building a population in the Grand Haven and Spring Lake area, quite a few people brought American chestnut trees along,” he said. Unfortunately, the chestnut trees were later taken out by a disease that spread across the country.
Dick said chestnuts only started to garner Michigan farmers’ attention again in the last 30 years. He decided to plant his first acre of chestnuts back in 1990 and many of his first trees ended up dying. Today, he has about 4 acres of trees planted across a total of 10 acres.
“In the state of Michigan, I think chestnuts are a crop that will fit in for a long time,” he said.
The Winkels are one of only a handful of farms in the state that offer a U-pick chestnut experience. Most of the other chestnut farms belong to a cooperative that produces and sells them commercially.
So, for a unique experience head out to the Winkel Chestnut Farm and pick a couple of pounds of chestnuts then try your hand at a new recipe with this delicious nut.
Recipe by Lisa Rose
Roasting chestnuts is a sensory experience that can be easily done in the kitchen with or without an open flame.
Ingredients and materials
- Sharp paring knife
- Iron skillet
- 1 pound chestnuts
- Melted butter for dipping
- Cinnamon and sugar to taste
Score a slit with a sharp knife in the bottom of each chestnut hull to allow the moisture to escape (thus eliminating exploding chestnuts).
Add scored chestnuts to a hot iron skillet then roast over medium heat until browned.
Once roasted, remove the skillet from heat and add the chestnuts to a plate to cool.
Once cool to the touch, peel chestnuts from their shell and then enjoy warm as a finger food and snack.
They have a very neutral, buttery flavor, making them an especially easy food for children to both prepare and appreciate. For an extra treat, have warm butter nearby with a cinnamon and sugar dusting spice to top the delectable chestnuts.
This story can be found in the September/October 2021 issue of Grand Rapids Magazine. To get more stories like this delivered to your mailbox, subscribe here.