They came to love the decidedly unique food at different times and on separate coasts, but both Chris Kresa and Felicia Mueller now have more than a passing affinity for the versatile chestnut.
Kresa, a second-generation farmer, got her first taste of the nut years ago from her father, one of the first organic walnut farmers in California.
“I thought they were delicious,” Kresa recalls. “I was sold.”
Mueller’s taste buds were piqued on the streets of New York, consuming nuts out of steaming bags she bought from street vendors.
But it wasn’t until years later, when the pair joined together to start Dungeness Chestnuts, that Mueller began to fully appreciate chestnuts.
“She has that in her blood,” Mueller says of her spouse. “Now I get it.”
Dungeness Chestnuts celebrated its first harvest in mid-October, but if you’re hankering to try the nut you’ll have to be a bit patient; Kresa and Mueller sold out of their crop quickly — in one week — and are already looking toward next year’s harvest.
With its first harvest, Dungeness Chestnuts offered five varieties from the savory to the sweet. Varieties include: Belle Epine “fluffy consistency; bright flavor … smooth buttery flavor with earth undertones,” the business owners write); Bouch de Betizac (“Our largest chestnut … pairs well with robust red wines or craft beers … would be stunning in stuffing); Marrisard (“Super tasty … a rich, sweet buttery flavor with bright earthy undertones … our 2018 flavor winner); Bisalta (“Sweet with hints of salty … easy to peel”), and the Precoce Migoule (“Our sweetest chestnut in 2018 … reminiscent of a flavorful, roasted sweet potato”).
With a kaleidoscope of flavors, the chestnuts can stand alone as a snack but often accentuates other foodstuffs, Kresa and Mueller say. That’s why they’ve found some early success connecting with chefs to bring their product — Sequim’s Alder Wood Bistro and Seattle’s Art of the Table among them — from farm to table, being used in entrees as well as desserts.
“There’s a lot of complexity of flavor,” Mueller says. “Chris grew up in wine country; she’s good at distinguishing flavors.”
‘Sequim fits the bill’
Kresa, who has a background in aerospace design engineering, said she and Mueller, whose background includes psychology, were looking for something to grow in the area and drew a bit on her family’s background as nut growers.
“It turns out, Sequim fits the bill,” Kresa says, explaining that the soil in the Sequim-Dungeness Valley tends to favor trees such as the chestnut, particularly a bit of distance away from water sources like the Dungeness — though they do benefit from supplemental hydration via Sequim’s irrigation water, particularly in their early stages, Mueller says.
Sequim’s temperate climate also favors chestnut trees, she says, as the area’s lowest temperatures don’t do much damage to the growing saplings.
“European varieties do well here,” Kresa says. “It’s the right plant in the right place.”
Mueller says the couple does a lot of data processing from year to year.
“It’s also kind of an experiment, (to) see which ones will take,” Kresa says.
A major blight killed off just about all of the American chestnut trees in the early to mid-1900s, particularly on the East Coast. That same fungal infection, Kresa notes, is not nearly so virulent in places like Sequim.
Kresa and Mueller found a spot just off Atterberry Road and started their 5-acre, 300-tree orchard about five years ago. It’s taken since then — without herbicides or pesticides, they add — to get the first crop of chestnuts.
“Now you can start to see it; the trees are getting some bulk to them,” Mueller notes.
“Once you walk into (a chestnut) orchard, it’s like walking into a cathedral.”
It takes a certain kind of person to want to grow this crop, Kresa says.
“You’ve got to want to work on the land,” she says.
Once started, however, chestnut trees tend to grow and grow, and the hardier ones live for hundreds of years.
“We don’t have kids; these are our kids,” Mueller says. “We have 300 kids.”
Some of those “kids” will likely have to be removed, the couple says, as the trees grow toward maturity — a sacrifice they’re prepared to make.
They are also looking to develop more crops apart from the chestnut, such as purple artichokes, to meet the interest of regional chefs and their customers.
In the future, Kresa and Mueller are looking at producing value-added products as well — the gluten-free, non-GMO chestnut can be used to make bread, flour and beer — but they note it’s still a young company with room to grow.
And while chestnuts may not be on many people’s radar in the Sequim area, owners of Dungeness Chestnuts say that may change. They envision its rise in popularity to the point where Sequim could boast a fall festival celebrating products like the chestnut, to compliment the area’s summer celebration of lavender.
“The demand is there, the interest is there,” Mueller says.
Both say they can see not only growth for their business but adding to the growing organic, farm-to-table movement that can help locals see where their food comes from. In essence, they say, it’s not just an economic boom, but a cultural one as well.
“When people know where their food’s coming from; it’s a counter-force to (where) our culture is today,” Mueller says.
“It’s an exciting thing for Sequim,” Mueller says. “We want to do something to make this …. a better place,” Mueller says.