Ari's Picks

Chestnut Baguettes – A Bakehouse Special Bake

A beautiful and delicious bread to brighten your day.

A beautiful and delicious bread to brighten your day on August 18 & 19

One of my all-time favorite Bakehouse breads will be available this coming weekend! You can buy a Chestnut Baguette (or two) on August 18 and 19 at the Bakeshop and Deli. Feel free to order ahead to be sure there’s a loaf waiting for you. I’ll be picking up a couple for our house! James Beard once said: “Good bread is the most fundamentally satisfying of all foods; and good bread with fresh butter, the greatest of feasts.” The Chestnut Baguettes from the Bakehouse backs up James Beard’s statement in a big way!

Baking with chestnut flour is wholly uncommon in the U.S. in the 21st century, but it’s got a long history in Italy, France, and central Europe where chestnuts were used for almost all sorts of cooking. Chestnut flour was often what people who couldn’t afford the more costly wheat would work with. In Ukraine, chestnuts are considered a symbol of prosperity, fertility, and also longevity.

(The story there, which dates to the 19th century, is yet another example of Russian imposition and acting with anything but grace, followed by creative Ukrainian resistance.) In the Lunigiana region of Tuscany, wheat was grown on the valley floor, so the only flour readily found in the mountain areas was ground from locally grown chestnuts. The region has long been known as “The Land of the Moon and the Bread Tree”—the latter is a reference to the chestnut.

The typical Casola Marocca bread of the area is now enshrined in the Slow Food Presidium. Chestnut flour-based breads were also popular in Liguria (the Italian Riviera), where Rocco and Katherine Disderide, the Italian immigrant couple who built the Deli’s building in 1902 had come from. In that sense, I feel like the Bakehouse’s Chestnut Baguettes have come full circle. Unfortunately, chestnuts in the U.S. fell prey to a massive blight in the early years of the 20th century and were almost totally eradicated. Michigan, I’m happy to say, has been the center of the American chestnut revival over the last decade or so.

To make the baguettes, we work with local chestnut flour from the folks at Treeborn, about half an hour or so west of here in Jackson. We blend that with freshly milled Michigan hard red spring wheat. No commercial yeast is used—just the flour, filtered water, and sea salt—which means that the baguettes are naturally leavened. The finished loaves are lovely, the color, in fact, of chestnuts. The flavor is nutty, full, subtly sweet, with a long, lovely finish that pairs well with an endless list. The baguettes are great with the Creamery’s fresh goat cheese or Manchester cheese. Toast a slice and top with olive oil and fresh Bellwether ricotta and some chestnut honey. If you toast slices on the grill to pick up a bit of woodsmoke, that’s wonderful too. Or just tear off a chunk and eat it as is!

Treeborn is located in the Rogers Reserve, land that was donated to Michigan State University by Ernie and Mabel Rogers in 1990. Determined to right what had gone so wrong in the American ecosystem, the Rogers gifted the land for the express purpose of supporting the revival of the American chestnut. Treeborn today has the only commercial chestnut peeling line in the Western Hemisphere, technology that makes this work possible.

As of the 2012 U.S. Census of Agriculture, Michigan is the country’s leading producer of chestnuts. Maybe when the ZCoB hits its 100th anniversary in 2082, local license plates will say “The Chestnut State.” And this beautiful baguette will be one of the state’s signature dishes, something travelers regularly take back with them to demonstrate what is possible when good people do good work in the world!

Pre-order for pick up at the Deli


P.S. If you want to make the baguettes at home, the recipe is in the Zingerman’s Bakehouse book on page 228.

                                                                       Want more from Ari?

Sign up for Ari’s Top 5 e-newsletter and look forward to his weekly curated email—a roundup of 5 Zing things Ari is excited about this week—stuff you might not have heard of!