You can spot an American chestnut almost at a glance. It's the size--more like an acorn than the huge chestnuts we're used to seeing. And size, says Phillip Rutter of Badgersett Research Farm in southeastern Minnesota, is part of the secret of its taste.
"There's a quirk to these nuts," he says. "Some of the taste is related to the size of the nut more than the species. As chestnuts dry, they get sweeter, and small nuts dry faster."
Although most of the chestnuts you find in the markets are Italian, Rutter says, it's worthwhile to search out Chinese nuts.
"Both Chinese and American chestnuts are superior to Europeans," he says. "In addition to sweetness, they lack the tannic quality the Europeans have. That comes from the thin skin that covers the nut, and it is almost insignificant in Chinese and American nuts. With Europeans, it can be a real problem to get off."
But the nut that has Rutter's heart is the American. "They are sweeter and have more interesting complex flavors as well," he says. "I've run into a few that have an almost mapley overtone to them.
"They are coming back. There is a future for the crop. There are more of them all the time, and pretty soon they'll be on the market. And they do taste wonderful."