Wednesday 28 October 2020

Foraging for Sweet Chestnuts in the UK

Guidance for the novice forager to help them pick, store and cook sweet chestnuts

October is the perfect time to head to your local woods and find a bounty of sweet chestnuts to enjoy both alone, or within sweet and savoury dishes. They really are very versatile and quite easy to prepare. Don't assume that foraging is just for the experienced person, all it means is searching for and using what nature has provided for us to eat. I suspect you've done it with blackberries before if nothing else!

Collecting your Sweet Chestnuts

The first thing you need to do is identify your sweet chestnut tree. You don't want to be trying to cook and eat conkers (the fruit of the horse chestnut) as they are mildly poisonous. You tend to find that conkers fall a bit earlier from the end of August through September and then sweet chestnuts fall more like the end of September and through to early November. Of course, this depends on the temperatures/ weather for that year. 

The main difference between the trees is the casing that the tree fruit is held within. On the sweet chestnut, you are looking for very prickly cases. they will be green on the tree and will go brown on the floor, but they are super sharp to the touch, like a little sea urchin. Quite different to the outer shell of the conker, which has much smaller prickles, more like little rose bush thorns on it.

Guidance for the novice forager to help them pick, store and cook sweet chestnuts

You always want to get your sweet chestnuts from the floor, if you pick them off the tree they will be immature. On the floor, they mature in their cases and you'll then get nice and juicy full fruits. Due to the prickles, you want to make sure you have thick gloves with you to protect your hands, although my favoured method is to open the case with my feet. I put a case between my feet, with the tree stalk downwards and then lightly press on one side of the casing, so it starts to open and you can see the sweet chestnuts. Then fully open it by sliding your other foot and pull out the chestnuts. Simple!

You can see from below that the sweet chestnut is less rounded, less dark and less shiny that the conker. They also, mostly, have a little point at one end with a couple of the prickles still attached.

Guidance for the novice forager to help them pick, store and cook sweet chestnuts

Storing Sweet Chestnuts

Leave your chestnuts on the side for around three days and any that are a little immature (you'll see they are still a little yellow/ white close to the bottom) will ripen and sweeten. They should then be cooked and eaten or used in a recipe if you don't want them to start to deteriorate. This happens within a week and it is as if the inside evaporates, as the outer starts to feel airy.

If you want to store them and use them over a longer period, then leave them uncooked and in their shells and place in either a plastic bag with some holes punched in it (for airflow) or a paper bag and they can be stored in the fridge for two to three weeks. 

Once you have cooked and peeled your sweet chestnuts, they can then be stored for longer if you wish. Roasted whole chestnuts will only keep in the fridge for a couple of days when wrapped in foil to retain their freshness. Or you can freeze them and they'll last several months, or depending on what you like to use them for you could make a puree and enjoy your chestnuts for months to come.

Preparing Sweet Chestnuts

I choose to roast my chestnuts always, so I cut into them with a very sharp knife, cutting an X shape into the shell and ideally not into the fruit inside. Then lay them on a roasting tray with the X face-up and roast at 200 for about 20-30 minutes. No oil needed, it is super easy. Just make sure you only have a single layer and don't overcrowd them. 

Guidance for the novice forager to help them pick, store and cook sweet chestnuts

Once cooked the X shape will have spilt and you'll see the fruit inside. I then bundle them all into a tea towel and close it up so they can steam together for about 5-10 minutes and I find this makes it easier for them to peel. You dom need to peel them when they are warm as it is easier, but be careful not to get burnt. 

Guidance for the novice forager to help them pick, store and cook sweet chestnuts

Here they are when peeled after roasting and these are great eaten as a warming Autumn snack or you can but them up and use them in various recipes, like stuffing, casseroles soups, salads and as a crispy topping. Here are some good ideas from the Independent a few years back. 

As mentioned earlier, you can also boil the chestnuts and if you are making a puree or want a more mashed consistency then this is an easy option. Place the chestnuts in a large pan of boiling water and cook them for 30-35 minutes. You can then either try to peel them or chop them in half and scoop the middle out. This is great for making chestnut puree or adding it to a soup or sauce. 

Whichever you go for, I hope you have lots of fun!

Why not pin this post for later?

Guidance for the novice forager to help them pick, store and cook sweet chestnuts

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