The answer is “not anymore” and “not yet”! This little nut, which presents itself as a treat served grilled or glazed with sugar, is one of the autumn pleasures that comes courtesy of the region… in Europe, at least! The days of enjoying the taste of American chestnuts are a thing of the past, but for how long?
Combining the words “chestnuts” and “Quebec” on the internet results in a very meager harvest. Although they were once appreciated on the streets of New York and harvested in the forests of the American east coast as far south as Quebec and Ontario, local chestnuts practically disappeared at the turn of the 20th century, under the The onslaught of an insect carrying a fungal disease which decimated populations of hardy chestnut trees in a few decades.
These large deciduous trees, although majestic, then fell into oblivion for a century before interest was taken again. Research is now aimed at reintegrating them into the territory, particularly in the temperate zones of Quebec where they do not have to fear the extreme cold.
Bernard Contré is one of those explorers who is interested in their rehabilitation. In 2008, he founded the Club of Edible Nut Producers of Quebec, drawing inspiration from other American amateur groups. Why did we wait so long to consider growing walnuts and tree nuts in Quebec? one might ask. “Question of efficiency,” replies the nurseryman, putting forward this hypothesis: “It’s a culture that takes its time. We cannot hope to replace imported nuts quickly. It’s not a question of taste or quality, but of volume and price. »
Inheriting the family land – 35 acres of alfalfa and hay – brothers Alain and Yvan Perreault looked for ways to exploit it while innovating. “Quickly, we became interested in the production of walnuts [and other tree nuts], which was just beginning to arouse curiosity,” says the first.
With its semi-clay soil, the land of Saint-Ambroise-de-Kildare, in Lanaudière, offered land suitable for growing fruit trees. These conditions met, the adventure of the Garden of Nuts was able to begin with plantations of hazel, hickory, oak and walnut trees which proved successful for the most part… which brings us back to chestnuts.
It was by letting their enthusiasm carry them that the duo planted around twenty American chestnut trees and hybrid chestnut trees in a corner of the hazelnut grove. “We wanted to see if they could survive our winters and they surprised us,” explains Alain Perreault. Not only do the candidates prove to be vigorous, but they produce quite quickly and consistently. However, it would be premature to draw conclusions from this. Despite 15 years of rooting, a sword of Damocles hangs above their crown: there is nothing to predict that they will escape the ravages of chestnut blight.
“A lot of research is being done in genetics or hybridization to make them more resistant. Chestnut cultivation nevertheless requires a certain investment for a low yield. The tree produces five times less than a hazel tree, while being much larger. For the moment, we are not growing it in the hope of selling it, but out of curiosity and for diversity,” continues Alain Perreault.
Hazelnut groves are rare in Quebec. Their ambition is to include their production in the range of agricultural possibilities and to succeed in marketing them. Certain nut trees already show a certain potential in this area, such as the hazel or walnut, which aspires to compete with the walnut.
The case of the chestnut tree, however, is perplexing. The tree takes about eight years to bear fruit. The triple to produce in “good quantity”, although modest for its size. Add to this an uncertainty about its survival, and we understand that the day when we can put a turkey with local chestnuts on the table will not arrive soon. “If we had planted nut trees 40 years ago, it might be an established crop today. Walnut, for example, is becoming more and more common. But I believe that we need to think differently than in terms of time or profitability and instead aim for the objective. What we are doing is an investment in the future and the survival of the species,” believes Bernard Contré.
One day, perhaps, we will see them appear on market stalls: a seductive portrait under a commercial lens. However, there is a more rural version, suggests the grower. “Growing your chestnut trees is a way of meeting your own consumption on a small scale. » Each specimen produces 15 to 25 pounds of chestnuts when ripe. Something to satisfy your desires!