It's chestnut season in the woods again and although most will have fallen to the ground, they are still harvestable in large numbers for another month. Sweet chestnut is a late flowering tree with the flowers appearing from July. The flowers are unusual as both male and female flowers appear on the same stalk. The flowering stems, which resemble long yellowish catkins, hang down with the male flowers spaced at intervals along them. The female flowers are formed near the base of the stalk and appear as small, green, hairy ovals, with three flowers in each. The flowers are wind and insect pollinated (the musty smell emitted from the flowers helps attract insects) and the seeds (nuts) develop fast.
The sweet chestnut is the most perfect of nuts as the tree has evolved to ensure that its seeds (the nuts) have the best chance of survival. Unlike the hazel, whose nuts are easily opened by squirrels whenever the squirrels desire them (often before they are ripe enough for us to eat!); the chestnuts ripen inside an impenetrable spikey case, which is why my woods are called ‘Prickly Nut Wood’. This case opens to produce three nuts, which in most years grow to a reasonable size in the south-east of England.
The prickly nut case opens to reveal the chestnuts within.
Old chestnut standard still producing well.
Of the last 23 years, I can only remember one year where there has been a poor harvest in the woods and that was 2012 (the year summer didn’t arrive), other years have been abundant and picking them is a quick process, a basket full in half an hour. I often consider how much food there is lying on the ground at this time of year in the chestnut woods across England. I leave standard trees amongst the coppice that produce well as does the coppice on longer rotations.
I placed this analysis of chestnut flour in my ‘Food from the woods’ chapter in The Woodland Way and it shows what a healthy flour can be made from the nut, as is well known in Corsica where the flour is a traditional staple food.
Analysis of chestnut flour taken from Kew Bulletin No.44 in August 1890 by a Professor Church
Moisture – 14.0%
Oil and fat – 2.0%
Proteins – 8.5%
Starch – 29.2%
Dextrin and soluble starch – 22.9%
Sugar – 17.5%
Ash – 2.6%
Cellulose – 3.3%
There are many methods of cooking sweet chestnuts (they are also nice raw, but you need to scrape off the bitter inner skin) and I am going to share a couple of my favourites. Roasted over the open fire in their skins (make sure you pierce the skins first or they will explode) is one of the joys of autumn. I have a French chestnut roasting pan which is slatted and ensures the chestnuts are cooked to perfection, but if cooking inside I peel them and roast them in a hot oven, about 230oC for 10 minutes.
Roasting chestnuts in the slated French roasting pan.
When they come out of the oven and have cooled slightly, they can be rolled in your hand which removes the inner skin, then dip them in a little salt and butter – my children’s favourite food. To peel chestnuts, I slice the bottom off with a sharp knife and remove the outer skin by peeling, a quick steam can help but I can peel pretty fast if they are fresh. Here is my latest recipe:
Chestnut and Bacon Goujons
2 cloves garlic
30g salted butter
3 rashes streaky bacon chopped small
1 cup of vegetable stock
80g cheddar cheese, grated
Salt and pepper
Take about 30 chestnuts, peel them and roast them in a hot oven 230oC for 10 minutes. Crush them in a blender or mortar and pestle.
Chop the onion and garlic and sauté in the butter with the bacon for a few minutes, add crushed chestnuts and stir in vegetable stock to form a thick paste and then add grated cheese.
Place in a shallow baking dish and leave to cool and set.
Crumble the breadcrumbs and add finely chopped winter savory and salt and pepper.
Beat the egg in a separate dish.
Cut the now cooled chestnut and bacon into goujons and dip in egg and then breadcrumbs and fry until golden, turning to cook each side.
Build with sweet chestnut trees: Roundwood timber framing with Ben Law
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