The ancient Greeks dedicated the Sweet Chestnuts to the God Zeus and a century ago when life was hard, sweet chestnuts were a local staple, ground into flour or fed to the pigs to add flavour to the pork. Today, sweet Chestnuts are a foragers treat. Unlike on the continent, in the UK they are not traditionally collected and so there are usually a good number available for the wily forager.
Happily for the novice forager there is little that they can be mistaken for except for the ubiquitous horse chestnut or conker, (which is, of course, quite poisonous). However, they are easy to tell apart, as horse chestnuts (conkers) have only a few spines spaced widely apart, whereas sweet chestnuts are covered all over in prickles which are much finer and sharper.
Also, sweet chestnuts contain 3 to 4 nuts in each case whereas there is usually only one conker per horse chestnut case. Remember to make sure you check them out in a good field guide, as you should before you eat any wild food.
In fact, foraging for sweet chestnuts is a prickly business. They are covered with thousands of spiny prickles that are so sharp that they penetrate even the most substantial pair of gloves. Picking them off the trees is one hazardous business. For that reason, I decided to wait until the nuts were good and ripe and had started to fall off themselves. This way they only required the slightest tug in order to dislodge them from their branches. Once picked if you place them in a warm, dark airy place they will dry out and begin to pop from their shells. Though its best not to leave them too long, no more that 24 – 48 hours or they may spoil.
So what to do with them now they are picked? Well, first you have to remove them from their outer prickly cases. Easier said than done. Breaking them open, called for a thick pair of gloves and a towel. Once they are starting to split, they have to be pulled apart by gripping either side and pulling. I used a towel to minimise the sore finger effect – though I still got sore fingers!
It took me a couple of hours to open all of them and I also discovered that the cases provide homes for numerous insects including ladybirds, spiders and, unfortunately many, many earwigs – yuk!
In the end though it all seemed worth it as many of the cases enclosed 3 or 4 good sized nuts and they look so pretty!
I then sorted through them and put aside the largest nuts for roasting. They keep for a week or more in a paper bag in the fridge. The rest I needed to peel from their shells. This is simpler than you may think. Just cut a slit in the skin with a sharp knife and drop them in boiling water for a couple of minutes. Lift them out with a slotted spoon and they will peel easily (make sure you wear rubber gloves or your already pricked fingers will get burned too!).
Once peeled the chestnuts can be frozen on a tray in the freezer and then kept to use later. Mine are ear-marked for Christmas turkey stuffing and sweet chestnut puree, but you can use them numerous different ways including in sweets, cakes and cheesecakes. They can also be dried, pickled or preserved in honey.
Roasting them is however, undoubtedly the best way to eat these delicious nuts and the fresher they are the better. To roast, slit / score with a knife and blanch in boiling water for 2 minutes. Then roast on a shovel in an open fire or in a low oven until their skins burst open. Enjoy hot from the oven/fire. Just the scent of them cooking conjures up images of the delights of bonfire night and the nuts steaming away on braziers at Christmas markets. Magic!
So get picking, there are plenty about out there…