Hi all and welcome back after the summer ‘break’ (who’s kidding when you have children). Here I’m going to show you how you can get out from Sept onwards and find free, delicious, safe and nutritious food from British hedgerows and waysides. Chances are you’ve been walking past some of these every day on the way to work, school or line dancing class…and let’s face it we all could do with saving money on food right now, whilst not skimping on quality. Plus, harvesting this lot is great fun!
WALNUT (Juglans regia/nigra)
There’s two types of walnut you will commonly find in the UK: the Common Walnut and the Black Walnut. They can both be used the same way in meals, though the Black Walnut can vary in tastiness and be harder to harvest due to the tree being really tall. The nuts are generally ready to harvest once the leaves of the tree start turning yellow and they begin falling to the ground. Below is a walnut tree, leaf and crushed nut (from the tree we walk past on the school run).
Walnuts are delicious in a creamy Waldorf salad or in a cake, but try toasting them with salt, butter and rosemary for a delicious and quick healthy snack. 100g of shelled walnuts gives you 100% of your daily fats (mostly the ‘good’ type of polyunsaturated fats, though avoid if you re trying to lose weight…most squirrels are trying to do the opposite at this time of year). This also gives you 25% of your Vitamin B6, 39% of your magnesium, 16% of your iron and 9% of your calcium, plus 30% of your protein. And they are ruddy expensive in the shops too!
BEECH NUTS (Fagus sylvatica)
I often collected the spiky brown prickly cases of beech mast on my way to work at the care home. though they don’t come every year, when they do they come in spades (I mean, with abundance, although if you use a spade to collect them, they do actually come in spades…oh, never mind). Check the mast while still on the tree til it shows signs of the brown nuts peeking through a crack at the top. Now is the time to crack the mast open and collect the small, shiny, vaguely Toblerone shaped seeds. This can be a bit of a faff and for this reason beech nuts have never really taken off as a commercial crop. Despite this, they are quite delicious when peeled and toasted. Just remember to toast them well as this removes their slightly poisonous thin coating of tannins and alkaloids.
The beech nuts shown above are what they look like when out of the mast cases. You now need to get a fingernail in the cases or roll them from side to side til they crack open and the pale gold seed within is released. A good job to do in front of the stove/telly one evening, (if you are one of the lucky ones with enough money for heating, and electricity to watch the TV with). They are rich in creamy tasting fats, a great idea if you are wanting to gain weight, although some of these are the ‘bad’ (saturated) fats. They contain 22% of your daily potassium per 100g and 17% of your Vitamin C.
HAZELNUTS (Coryllus avelana)
The classic addition to chocolate and treats, these sweet and creamy nuts are hard won from the squirrels, who usually have them well away before we come anywhere near them. Your best chance is to pick them whilst still green (immature), when the cases are still creamy white-green. They can then be ripened in a warm, dry place (high up, away from rats!). Once they are dried, try making home made Nutella for an easy quick recipe, all you need is cocoa powder, ground up hazelnuts and honey or sugar. For a savoury hit, try a nut loaf.
To harvest, shake the tree. If the nuts are ripe, they will fall.
SWEET CHESTNUT (Castanea sativa)
These are my personal favourite, low in fat but high in precious winter carbs, with a floury mouth feel that goes perfectly with herbs, salt and bacon (or Vegi bacon). Don’t get them confused with Horse Chestnut (conkers). A good way to remember the difference is ‘conkers are hedgehogs, chestnuts are porcupines’. Chestnuts have a far more spiny green husk than conkers, which are leathery. Failing that, one taste of a conker (which has not got the chestnut’s tapering tip covered with silken white hair) will convince you it’s not the right nut! I have constantly been amazed how many people have not been taught the difference!
The real challenge is how to harvest these critters. It’s easy enough find them falling on the woodland floor (or, in my case, the front gardens of a local estate), but extracting the nuts from the spiny husks takes fingers of stupid iron. Far better to crush the husk under a stout boot til it pops out – as long as you haven’t stepped in dog poop beforehand, that is. If you roll the husk side to side under your boot whilst applying gentle force (rather than stamping on it), this stops the nut getting crushed. C’mon, you’re going to be cooking them anyway…
PINE NUTS (Pinus sps)
Yes, all pine nuts are edible, with a pleasant enough resiny aftertaste. No, not all are worth the bother harvesting. Some species have very small seeds. The Stone Pine contains the largest, tastiest seeds, the kind you get sold at extortionate rates at the health food shop. To extract any species of pine seeds, collect unopened pine cones and gently heat them on top of a radiator, stove, or smouldering broken up furniture, depending on how hard you have been hit by the energy crisis. The cones will open and drop their seeds, usually encased in papery ‘wings. Pick these off and add the pine nut seeds to your recipe.
Look at my previous blog post on Monterey Pine for a pine nut recipe with burdock root burgers.
Or add to houmous for a delicious crunch.
Pine nuts have apparently kept (so the legend goes) a terrified Japanese girl alive in the woods for several years, after she fled her burning village in WW2. We do know they contain high amounts of good fats, potassium, magnesium and iron, plus 28% of your daily protein requirements per 100g.
So, I hope that’s enough to get you started on going nutting.
One other thing – take a long stick, preferably with a crook or hook at the end. This is perfect for pulling down branches or gently shaking then to collect the nuts.
Have fun in the nice fresh, damp British autumn. More recipes and nut related stories to come!
PS: You can now listen to this post on Anchor as a podcast!
xx Hedgewitch Kat xx