Yep, sweet chestnuts, most of us have heard of them, or eaten them roasted from brasiers in large cities in November. Castanea sativa…meaning ‘sweet’, this useful tree was brought over here by homesick Romans. Little did they realise how the rainy, cold climate of Blighty would affect the quality of the nuts! Yet the wood was still an important source of quality timber.
As our climate heats up, we can expect better crops of chestnuts as they enjoy hotter climates. (We may end up fighting over them with hordes of climate refugees in a dystopian future, but hey, let’s look at the positives.)
You would be surprised, however, how many people confuse them with Horse Chestnuts, otherwise known a ‘conkers’. I recall harvesting from the small sweet chestnut trees in the courtyard of UEL in East London where I was a student. Not a few fellow students stopped to ask me what the hell I was doing “eating conkers”. And this was from the formally educated sector of the population! There’s no shame in this though..it’s just not something you get taught unless your family or friends are into wild harvesting
So how do you tell them apart?
The way I like to tell them apart is…’conkers are hedgehogs, chestnuts are porcupines’. Conker shells are leathery, with sparse, short spines. Chestnuts have long, dense spines like a porcupine. Once you have broken through the shell case, conkers have a large flat white circular face on them, whilst chestnuts are heart shaped, have a rectangular face, and a silky white tapering ‘tail’. The interior of the chestnut case is a shining white velvet purse, opening to reveal the tasty treasure within.
Below – LEFT Sweet Chestnut , Castanea sativa. RIGHT – Conker, or Horse chestnut
Sweet chestnuts are important food for red deer, a point made by the police in Richmond Park when they found me and my friends with 3 large carrier bags full. Technically the common people have Right of Pannage in a lord’s forests, but I wasn’t sure how this applied to a Royal Park. Anyway, they had a point. After a bit of an altercation between the police and my ex boyfriend, we tipped two bags full of our haul back out on the ground. After all, the deer don’t have McDonalds.
How do you eat them?
The traditional British way to eat these is to shake off the mud, cut a cross in the curved side (a real recipe for cut fingers if you are still developing the skill), then bung them in an oven at Gas Mark 5 for 25 minutes. Allow to cool, then crack them open and dip them in salt, eating them while still warm. The taste like a warm hug in autumn, floury, sweet yet not too sweet, smoky, crumbly, moist. Mmmm. Excuse me…memories of staring up at the Tate Modern with a cone of chestnuts warming my hands in the cool night air. When I still got out at night, before children….
So what do chestnut trees look like?
The leaves are roughly 25cm long, serrated, glossy, with a pointed tip. In the Spring the white male flowers have a very sweet smell. The female flowers are green. The branches can be quite low and spreading, which is handy for harvesting! The silvery bark is deeply fissured in mature trees, spiralling as it goes up the trunk. Chestnuts are pretty tolerant to a range of soils, so they can be found in woods, the gardens of large estates, or planted in housing estates. People tend to be quite happy to let you graze on their lawns as they get their front garden tidied for free, and you get free food. It’s a no brainer…
How do I collect chestnuts?
Pop the chestnuts out of their cases by using aside to side rolling motion with your foot. It goes without saying that this foot must be in sturdy footwear. The spines can still make it through a thin training shoe, as I have experienced, so be warned! Be careful not to get run over when you start foraging into the road…
Why should we bother eating them?
Nutrition wise, chestnuts are high in carbohydrates but low in saturated fats. This means they are a great source of winter energy yet do not add to your love handles! They are high in fibre and Vitamin C, but don’t have the amount of protein of many other nuts. You get a fair amount of iron, potassium, vitamin B6 and magnesium though. They pack an incredible 44% of your daily Vitamin C per 100g!
Sort the nuts and throw away any that have worm holes in them. Store them in a ventilated container or basket in a cool dry place while you work out what to do with them. Don’t leave them for more than a few weeks though. In the next part of my post, we will be exploring exactly what you can do with this useful nut…including making Tuscan ‘bastard pasta’…unmissable.
Processing for flour
by ‘processing’ I mean cooking the chestnuts in the oven as per above, then breaking them open. I used a nut cracker as this destroys your hands after a while. When your chestnuts are broken into smaller chunks, spread them out in a tray and dry them in the oven on a low setting. I put them in at gas Mark 1 for about 2/3 hours, this seemed to do nicely. Now comes the fun part where you get to do lots of exercise!
I used a pestle and mortar at first, grinding the dry pieces in an excruciating fashion to create spoonfuls of flour, which I sieved out into a jug. After just half an hour this began to knacker my hands. Surely there was a better way to do this, or our ancestors would have starved to death long before!
Lacking a handy nearby watermill with mill stones, I scanned Amazon and bought a Goldenwall hand mill for £50. This may sound like a lot, but I assure you there are much more expensive ones out there. There are electric ones too which take all the work out of it (if you shell out several hundred pounds), but where’s the fun in that? Anyway, I’ll be the one laughing when the national grid goes down.
My son eagerly got to work. After his first few attempts the mill was still not broken, though the biggest challenge was not losing the spring which adjusts the fineness of the grind. Tightening the spring and the cranking arm with the wing nut adjusts the type of grind from coarse to fine flour. I did notice it said ‘no oily nuts’ on the packaging, but chestnuts aren’t very oily thankfully, and it seems to work fine with them.
So, we had some chestnut flour. What to make with it?
I researched some Tuscan recipes – chestnut flour was used by Italian peasants in Tuscany as they didn’t have enough wheat flour. They would make ‘castagnaccio Puglese’, a cake with chestnut flour, dried fruits and olive oil. They would add the chestnut flour to gnocchi and pair with sage butter, wild mushrooms and walnut pesto…mmmm. They would also make chestnut dumplings, soup, and ‘bastarda’ – bastardised pasta cut with chestnut flour. Brilliant. There are some great recipes on PastaGrannies YouTube channel.
For my first attempt at cooking with this heavy, moist flour, I chose to make ‘Necci’ – Tuscan chestnut flour crepes. These are traditionally filled with ricotta cheese and honey, or sometimes dried sausages, taking advantage of the sweetness of the chestnut flour.
This time I used 100% chestnut flour, 150g as per the recipe, but switched the 150g water for oat milk as it felt a bit cheap to use water. I added half a tsp of salt and 2 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil. I fried the batter in olive oil as the Italians would have done. The amazing result?
“It looks like prison food.” said my son.
I had to agree. though I’m not sure how my 7 year old knows about the food quality in prisons.
I made the best of it and paired the lumps of chestnut gruel with fresh wild watercress, goat’s cheese and some herby meat. It was then that I had a brainwave. I used the chestnut as a paste and made up a delicious salty-sweet falafel wrap type thingy which didn’t look or taste too bad. Though my son still viewed it with suspicion. Honestly though, it was nice!
So now I’ve made the next batch of flour, next time I would cut this 50% with wheat flour to make it more manageable in the kitchen, and try it with water like those wise Italian peasants said.
Stay tuned for more chestnut flour recipes (and disasters) in the Hedgewitch Adventures kitchen…
xx Hedgewitch Kat xx