Sweet chestnuts are a traditional forager’s treat, and are oddly under-used in the UK which means there is rarely any shortage of them for gathering from the wild. Make sure you have gloves with you to avoid the spines, and lay the nuts out in a single layer as soon as you get home to stop them going mouldy. Chestnuts should be used within a week, and can be baked, roasted, boiled or microwaved. Remember to cut a slit or cross in them to stop them exploding when they are cooked.
The delicious aroma of roasting chestnuts is a true winter delight, but this wild food – essentially free if you just go out and look for it – is not as popular in Britain as elsewhere in Europe. This is a pity because chestnuts are a versatile food with a long history, high in carbohydrates but low in protein and fat. Sweet chestnuts are easy to identify because they have lots of very prickly spikes on their outer shells, and look like clusters of little hellow hedgehogs. There are generally three or four nuts to a casing. In contrast, the slightly poisonous horse chestnut (the only thing you’re likely to confuse them with) is comparatively unspiky, and only has one or two nuts to a casing. They can look a bit similar out of their cases, but only the sweet chestnut has a little tuft of fur at the apex. Gather only plump, firm chestnuts – if they give when you squeeze them they are not worth your time. Nuts with neat little holes drilled through the shells should be left too, as this is a sign of weevil infestation.
Chestnut trees are not usually planted as part of an edible garden, except by the truly far-sighted. If you think ahead in terms of decades, or are planting for your children, then they’re a really good investment. By ten years old a grafted tree can produce 10kg (22lb), but trees grown from seed can take thirty years or even longer to begin fruiting. They’re not for the faint-hearted though. Sweet chestnut trees are large and spreading, growing up to 30m (100ft) high with a spread of 15m (50ft). What’s more, you need at least two trees for pollination.
If you’re lucky enough to have a sweet chestnut tree within striking distance, they’re a forager’s dream. The nuts fall from the tree in late autumn, and you need to pick them up as soon as possible before they get waterlogged or swiped by squirrels. Wear gloves, as those spikes really hurt.
Fresh chestnuts keep for a week at room temperature and will sweeten up if left in a single layer where the air can get at them. They’re at their sweetest after about three days at room temperature, but after this the nuts begin to go mealy and the skins get hard.
To keep chestnuts for two or three weeks, leave them in their shells and store them in a paper bag in the refrigerator. To keep them for even longer, freeze them in their shells. The texture deteriorates, but they taste just fine. Alternatively you can candy them, puree them or store them in syrup, but drying chestnuts at home is difficult as they need a continuous flow of cool air.
Chestnuts are a lot of work to prepare, but here are a couple of methods that will give you better – and faster – results. First you need to pick over the nuts, discarding any with weevil holes. Then make a shallow X in the flat side of each nut with a sharp knife, aiming to go through the shell but not to cut into the meat beneath. Now the nuts are ready to cook, and there are four main methods, the easiest being boiling. But first, the secret to peeling them quickly: chestnuts are easier to peel when they are warm and damp. Whichever method you choose, wrap the cooked chestnuts in a damp tea towel to keep them warm while you peel the others. Remove the shell and pellicle (the bitter inner skin), and you’re good to go.
Microwaving chestnuts is certainly quick, but it’s really easy to burn the nuts, so beware. Slit the shells as described above, place the chestnuts in a single layer on a microwave-safe plate, and blast them on full power for two minutes (in a 850W oven). If you think they need a bit longer, work your way up 20 seconds at a time.
Roasting chestnuts is the traditional way to cook them, and gives the best flavour. Slit the shells as described above, then put the nuts in a pan on the stovetop, under a grill, on a BBQ or (if you really want to be traditional) on a shovel in the embers of a fire. Roast the chestnuts until the shell splits open at the cut, or you see steam or hear them hissing. Don’t worry about the shell turning black in places, as you’ll be taking it off anyway.
Oven-baking is a convenient way of doing large batches of nuts. Slit the shells as described above and bake the chestnuts on a tray at 200C until the shells split open at the cut, which should take around half an hour. It’s a good idea to shake the tray to turn the nuts every ten minutes or so.
Boiling in water may be unglamorous but it is very simple, makes for the easiest peeling, and is probably the best way to process relatively small amounts of foraged nuts. If you need whole, unblemished chestnuts (say for candying), slit the shells as described above and drop them into a shallow pan full of simmering water. WEARING RUBBER GLOVES, a minute or two later take two or three out with a slotted spoon. The shell peels down from the top, and if the skin doesn’t come with it, it will soon follow with a rub from your gloved fingertip. Any skin caught in the folds can be tweaked out by a helper (non glove-wearing), or with a knife, or rubbed off gently with a toothbrush. If the nut cools down too much and the skin re-adheres, pop it back into the boiling water for 30 seconds. The nuts go floury if they’re cooked for too long, so about six nuts at a time in the boiling water is about right so you can do two or three batches of peeling. This is still labour intensive, but you get beautifully clean nuts, don’t waste so many, and don’t burn your fingers. If you don’t need whole nuts, there’s a much faster way to peel them which again uses boiling. Instead of cutting a cross into the nuts, chop them in half and boil them for two or three minutes. Then use a pair of pliers to squeeze the nut from the shell side, and you’ll find the nut just pops out of the shell with no fuss. If you use a pair of spring-opening pliers you can get really fast at this, and pop enough to make a batch of stuffing in less than five minutes.