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 chestnut tree was still an important source of quality timber.
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 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.
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.
sweet chestnut LEFT
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 of our hauls back out on the ground. After all, the deer don’t have McDonalds.
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.
They taste like a warm hug in autumn, floury, sweet yet not too sweet, smoky, crumbly, and 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….
Anyway, moving on…
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 among houses.
Okay, so what can we make besides roast chestnuts?
Actually, quite a lot.
The Tuscan peasants in Italy have made chestnut flour for centuries. This is made into pasta, endearingly known as ‘pasta bastarde’ – bastard pasta! They would do this out of necessity when the wheat harvest was poor in times past.
Now chestnut flour is a ‘bit of a thing’ with high end restaurants and chefs making all sorts of delicious cakes and pastas out of it. The taste is very rich and sweet.
Chestnut flour is gluten-free, too. So great if you want to avoid gluten. As it doesn’t have gluten, however, it doesn’t rise like wheat flour does. So things made with a lot of chestnut flour tend to be dense in texture.
NECCI – TUSCAN CHESTNUT PANCAKES
I made chestnut flour pancakes, traditionally called ‘necci’ in Italy. I added some warm water, a half teaspoon of salt and some olive oil. Very simple, with 100% chestnut flour, the way they do it over in Italy apparently!
My small son’s verdict?
‘Like prison food, mum.’
Not asking how he knew about prison food at the tender age of 7, I realised I’d need to add some wheat flour to the recipe. It tasted nice, but was better off spread as a filling in a wrap with fresh salad and seasoned pork.
PASTA BASTARDE – TUSCAN BASTARD PASTA
Now it was time to cut the chestnut flour 50/50 with wheat flour and make chestnut pasta.
There are lots of great videos of Italian grannies doing this on Pasta Grannies Youtube channel. In reality, it is a lot harder to make the effortless seeming pasta shapes the way these elderly maestros do it.
Mine were like thick bootlaces!
They tasted good though, after boiling in salty water for at least 10 minutes.
I teamed them with bacon and a dollop of yoghurt, and whacked on a side of fresh cherry tomartoes and wild watercress harvested from the lock stream down the way.
Shame it looked so ugly!
CHESTNUT FLOUR GNOCCHI
Marty had great fun making these. They did sit on the stomach somewhat.