Wild Harvest: Going nuts for this winter treat

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Our terrier Tigga was well camouflaged. His coat of russet-brown and gold blended with the rich carpet of autumn leaves that rustled and crunched beneath our feet. His nose sniffed with excitement as he sought delicacies of which many would be unaware. Could he recall the scent of sweet chestnuts we gathered last year?

The ground beneath the sweet chestnut trees was littered with a profusion of spherical green cases covered with long spines. We’d seen the prickly fruit suspended high above since September. Now, at the closing of October the ripe fruits were ready to collect.

Sweet chestnuts were brought to Britain by the Romans, and became naturalised in warmer parts. Trees were planted in south east England and coppiced for timber, having a very durable heartwood after two to five years.

Don’t confuse them with horse chestnuts by the way, whose inedible conkers look similar to sweet chestnuts in their spiny husks. Sweet chestnut leaves are large and grow singly, with spine-like toothed edges.

The sweet chestnuts we sought had already fallen, although many may have been helped on their way by using a few flung sticks!

Opening the prickly husks may prove a painful business, and many folk go well prepared with a pair of gloves and strong boots. The gloves are for extricating the fruits, as there are two or three in each case. The boots are for splitting the husks underfoot. Already many of the nuts were lying free amongst the leaves - eagerly sought by Tigga! By mid-November most nuts are freely dispersed. The polished brown surface of the ripe nuts gaping from the opened husk is most alluring. It makes you want to stamp on every husk revealed, and rummage through the leaves and spines like a terrier seeking his trophy! However, we were not there to gather nuts for any purpose.

I tend to shy away from eating the nuts raw, though I always nibble one or two. I find them bitter, although I must admit they prove to be more palatable if the pith is peeled away along with the shell.

Memories return to the days when we roasted them. Roasting really does transform the flavour.

November 5 meant a street bonfire party which usually fell on a cold night. As the flames subsided, we threw the chestnuts into the hot ashes, and waited with eager anticipation. Any onlookers were entertained with a mini-war, as the chestnut skins exploded quite ferociously, scattering hot shell in all directions!

Roasted chestnuts were then raked from the dying embers and enjoyed by all. This led to roasting more chestnuts in front of our open fire in the lounge on a frosty night. This took some beating, although one’s parents always insisted that the skins were slit first to prevent explosions, and we had to sit well back from the fire - just in case! We could leave ONE un-pricked, as when that burst it indicated the others would be ready too.

Sweet chestnuts are a really good source of food. They even form a staple food in some Mediterranean countries, being dried and ground into flour for many dishes. In Sicily, Madeira, and southern France etc, the poorer folk used to subsist largely on a diet of chestnuts. Even the Persian nobility are said to have been fattened on chestnuts! Coffee houses in Lucca, Pescia and Pixtoga served delicious pates, muffins and tarts made from chestnuts.

Chestnuts are highly versatile, whether pickled, candied, boiled with brussel sprouts, or chopped, stewed and baked with red cabbage to make a rich vegetable pudding.

Why not try chestnut puree? Shell and peel chestnuts, and boil them in a thin meat stock for about 40 minutes. Strain off the liquid. Rub the nuts through a sieve, or mash them in a liquidiser. The resulting puree can be seasoned, and used as a substitute for potatoes, or form the basis of stuffings and sweets.

Do let me know of your favourite recipe. Maybe it’s chestnut stuffing for roast turkey or simply chestnut-flower fritters. Meanwhile, I’ll just enjoy roast chestnuts!