Happy Nuts

With less than 100 kanals of land under its cultivation across Kashmir, chestnut is a prized winter delicacy. Shakir Mir reports how this nut is sustaining a village economy in Zabarwan foothills

Chestnuts-RoastingMohammad Ramzan, 68, a labourer, moves out in a chilly October morning, wielding a stick. In the mist-shrouded orchards above Harwan, Ramzan thrashes a giant Chestnut tree with force, letting dozens of urchin-like fruits fall down en-masse.

Assembling the collection in boxes, Ramzan dispatches the produce to fruit mandis across Srinagar. Although Ramzan is paid a meager Rs 200 a day, the owner sells boxes at lucrative prices of Rs 4000 a box.

The popular fruit nut then inundates the markets across Kashmir for a brief period during which the vendors witness an unusual surge in the customer rush.  European chestnut locally called Punjeab Gaer is a rare autumnal delicacy which is quite expensive than its aquatic counterpart, the water caltrop or simply Gaer in Kashmiri. Yet, people shell out money charitably to lay hands on their share of this aromatic and sweet autumn nut.

Ahead of the unforgiving winters, the consumers – already agitated by the winter woes – buy the nut fruit industriously to soothe their taste buds.

A chestnut comprises of five to six edible kernels which remain crammed inside a spiky husk. The nuts are torn out and eaten raw or sometimes roasted, which adds to its taste.

“In the morning we place a large mound of chestnuts on the stalls and by evening the stock is sold,” says Ashraf, a nut vendor near Lal Chowk. “Customers throng in large numbers to buy it.”

The chestnut grows in temperate regions and it is believed that the kind of variety which grows in Kashmir was introduced by the British rulers’ centuries ago. China is pertinently the largest producer of Chestnuts in the world. The nut is also grown copiously in Japan. Yet, the Chestnut trees that grow here are strikingly similar to the ones found across Europe, experts have identified. “It might be because Kashmir’s climate resemble with Europe’s,” says Prof Zaffar Reshi, a senior Botanist at Kashmir University. “But what we know for certain is that the tree was introduced and not indigenous.”

The nut is sold very expensively. In Europe itself, a pound (2.2 kgs) costs some $ 5 (Rs 332). However, in parts of Kashmir, a kilo sells for Rs 400.

The cultivation of this nut in Valley is limited to some isolated pockets along Zarbarwan foothills like New Theed near Harwan. There is a widespread presence of sturdy chestnut trees as old as 80 years in this area which loom across twelve kanals of Horticulture land. The trees produce some two quintals of chestnut fruit worth rupees 6 lakh every year.

The nut is also grown privately by wealthy land owners across some 50 kanals of agricultural land on the upper reaches of Harwan where laborers like Ramzan slog for hours during the harvest season. The economy from the nut cultivation has been helping the poor villagers from the area sustain their livelihood.

The 77-year-old Ghulam Mohiddin Bhat, a villager, has been growing small chestnut plantations for many years. “The chestnut seeds are first sown in a bucketful of wet sand in the month of September,” Bhat explains. “In a two weeks’ time, they start to germinate and release a greenish wisp.”

The spore-bearing seeds are then interred into the land to grown into small plants. “In three years’ time, the plant becoming big enough to be sold out,” says Bhat who sells one plant for rupees two hundred.

Hundreds of villagers in areas such a New Theed are into this thriving business of chestnut cultivation. New Theed is pastoral village located just half-a-kilometer up the popular Harwan garden where a network of palatial houses is punctuated by small mud and brick abodes. A water stream cuts through the area which villagers capitalize to irrigate the orchards. The village oversees the terraced Horticulture field where a range of fruit trees including apple is grown.

According to Bhat, chestnut was earlier exported to foreign countries as well, while locally, it was also used to prepare an organic form of wall putty. “It was used to repair walls where plaster had worn off or glue the glass sheets into the window brackets,” Bhat recollects.

The fields of New Theed village are replete with Chestnut trees. A tree generally grows erect and occupies a large area which is why it’s placement amongst other trees is generally discouraged.

When its fruit ripens, the spiny chestnut casings fall naturally and crack open. The growers simply rummage through the leaf litter to retrieve the fruit. “Hence it doesn’t take too much workforce,” says Akhtar Hussain, Deputy Director, department of horticulture. “Just 9-10 persons work to collect the produce from our land in New Theed.”

The box generally containing around 15 kgs of chestnut which sells for Rs 4000; a fully grown tree can produce as many as ten boxes. “It is worth fortunes,” smiles a private grower who does not wish to be identified.

While the private cultivators directly sell boxes to fruit mandis across Kashmir, those produced from Horticulture land is auctioned to the highest bidders.

“We buy the limited amount from the fruit mandi and sell them across the city,” explains Ashraf, the hawker.

The chestnut season also brings cheers to the migrant labour community who hail from mainland India. They make good earnings out of selling this nut. “When the cold starts to intensify, we generally prefer leaving Kashmir,” says Mohan, a migrant worker from Uttar Pradesh. “But chestnut business has made sure that we stay a bit longer.”

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