Delight the senses with fresh or prepared.
Originally printed in the December 2023 issue of Produce Business.
Whether it’s the aroma of a traditional fiery roast or a quick taste from a modernized snack, chestnuts signal it’s time for winter festivities.
Although the chestnut season begins in late fall, it reaches its pinnacle at the year-end holidays.
While many people have yet to enjoy the pleasure of open-fire chestnuts of the Christmas ballad, today’s suppliers can fulfill not only fresh chestnuts to consumers, but can also provide ready-to-eat roasted and peeled chestnuts.
“During the fall and winter seasons, some customers prefer to purchase fresh chestnuts because they are delicious and add a holiday touch to their tables,” says Yasmin Pacia, chief marketing officer of Trucco, Bronx, NY.
Trucco has been importing fresh chestnuts from the Campania mountains of Italy for decades. Their local growers harvest them traditionally. “This year, our growers are facing a challenging crop due to the very hot summer,” says Pacia. “Crop is estimated at less than 50% of normal season, which could create a shortage for the Christmas holidays. This will give the opportunity to feature the ready-to-eat chestnuts at store level.”
Trucco offers a variety of sizes and packages for its bulk chestnuts, typically from October through January. “Consumers are looking for larger sizes of chestnuts,” reports Pacia, and the company is introducing a new 2-pound burlap bag.
Melissa’s/World Variety Produce, Los Angeles, CA, calls attention to both its Italian and Korean chestnuts. “The Korean varieties are premium, bigger, and these are the highest quality,” notes Robert Schueller, director of public relations. “They taste great and are not priced as high as the Italian ones.”
Melissa’s Italian chestnuts are available in November through December and January.
Procacci Brothers, Philadelphia, PA, which is marking its 75th anniversary this year, received a shipment from Italy in late October, reports Mike Maxwell, president. “The quality looks good, with good sizing.”
“We’ll polish and grade the nuts, making sure there are no cracked, misshapen ones. We sell only 100% good.”
Charles Yeh, director of produce at Stew Leonard’s, Norwalk, CT, says chestnuts from Italy are a “great seller” for Stew Leonard’s from October through January. Stew Leonard’s has seven supermarkets in Connecticut, New York and New Jersey.
“We carry the largest size available (AAAA), and our customers use them in baking, enjoy them as a snack, or add them to their homemade soups and stews,” says Yeh. “Shoppers can either choose to scoop their own by the pound from a bin in our produce department, or they can buy a package of peeled, ready-to-eat organic chestnuts.”
“While fresh chestnuts remain popular, there is a growing demand for value-added products,” Pacia notes. “Some people love fresh chestnuts for traditional cooking, and others go for convenient products, like chestnuts ready-to-eat.”
Schueller says value-added options can be a time-saver in the kitchen. “Raw chestnuts are tricky and laborious to crack open,” he explains. “Melissa’s Organic Peeled and Steamed Chestnuts require no work at all. They are available year-round, have no preservatives, and keep two months in a refrigerator.”
“During the past four and five years, they have become tremendously popular,” he adds. “They are now 80 to 90% of our chestnut business. They are driving the market with their convenience and price-saving.”
“Ready-to-eat chestnuts can be enjoyed by simply opening the pouch and eating them, or warming them up and add to any dishes,” Pacia says. “It is important to remember that whether you use freshly roasted, or ready-to-eat chestnuts, the result of your recipe is not likely to be impacted. Both options can produce great results.”
Trucco brands its value-added chestnuts, available year-round, under the TruStar label.
PROMOTE BOTH TYPES
Regarding the ready-to-eat chestnuts, Pacia recommends retailers maintain a consistent and appealing presentation of the chestnuts throughout the season to maximize their appeal to shoppers and drive sales.
“Retailers can incorporate seasonal decorations, such as fall leaves, or harvest-themed props to enhance the visual appeal during the autumn months,” suggests Pacia. And proper placement is important. “Placing the display prominently near the store entrance will catch customers’ attention. They can use a simple sign to explain the benefits of eating chestnuts.”
Chestnuts in the produce department encourage cross-merchandising. Melissa’s suggests butternut squash, apples and porcini mushrooms to accompany the rich flavor of its steamed chestnuts.
In displaying fresh chestnuts, Procacci Brothers’ Maxwell urges retailers to “pile them high,” and also emphasizes being meticulous over freshness. “Put out only what sells that day. Chestnuts are perishable. Treat them as any perishable. Keep them in a 34 F fridge, and sell them each day.”
To increase sales, Maxwell recommends sampling at the retail store. Especially with chestnuts, he adds, “it leaves the right aroma.”
The Christmas season remains the top holiday for celebrating chestnuts. “Chestnuts are in our Christmas display. We price chestnuts by the pound. Customers can buy one or 100. When they’re gone, they’re gone,” says Joyce Carr, manager of Leonard Labriola’s Italian Market, Pittsburgh, PA. The Labriolas have three markets in the Pittsburgh area.
COOK TO PERFECTION
Opinions vary widely on cooking methods.
Maxwell points out, “Our 1-pound retail mesh package has instructions on the label. Cook at a high temperature, crack it open and it’s good to go.”
“Open-fire roasting is the traditional method that some still use,” says Pacia. But she also shares the more common method is an oven at 400 F for 15-20 minutes or to the desired texture. “This requires cutting an ‘X’ with a small knife on each chestnut.”
At Stew Leonard’s stores, Yeh says they provide easy directions for roasting chestnuts at home by the chestnut display to encourage sales.
“At our produce department, we are ready to assist chestnut customers,” says Carr. She instructs patrons on how to cut an “X” and roast at 350 F for 20 to 30 minutes and check often.
Harrison’s California Chestnuts, Gridley, CA, includes on its website not only open-fire instructions, but also baking, air fryer, boil, microwave, roasting and barbecue techniques.
US CHESTNUT DEMAND
The U.S. Department of Agriculture notes almost all chestnuts in the U.S. are imported. Italy is the primary exporter to this country.
“In the U.S., most imported chestnuts found in grocery stores are European or Euro-Japanese chestnuts imported from Italy. Domestically, there are growers of both Chinese chestnuts, as well as European and Euro-Japanese cultivars,” says Sara Fitzsimmons, vice president of the American Chestnut Federation.
The demand for chestnuts in the U.S. far outweighs the supply, particularly for fresh, domestically grown products. Virtually all producers sell out every year, sometimes even in advance of harvest.