That Old Chestnut

I was on a late afternoon squirrel sortie around my shoot, under a rustic autumn leaf canopy, when I spotted them. All around me, the floor was strewn with the spikey kernels of sweet chestnuts. Hundreds of them. Most were split open, the brown fruits peeping out like hares eyes. Some were fresh and unripe windfalls. I decided that this was an opportunity far too good to pass up. For the next hour, I set about filling my game bag with my woodland treasure.

Many decline the opportunity of collecting sweet chestnuts, put off by the prickly shells. These do what they were designed to. They are one of nature’s perfect examples of seed armour. To our sensitive skin, they make a painful adversary but if you’re feeling pain, you’re going about the harvest the wrong way! Today I made the first sweep of the floor picking up the nuts that had already fallen from the seed pods without having to touch a single needle-sharp spike. Next, I used my skinning knife to break out the fruits from split kernels. You simply slide the blade between the fruits and twist sharply. The chestnuts will pop out of the shells and you can pick them up. A pain-free technique. Within an hour I had a game-bag full of sweet chestnuts (a fairly heavy load) and made my way back towards the car. I grabbed a pair of gardening gloves and a bag from the car, returning for the unripe kernels. These green fruits are difficult to open but I have a method of maturing them which I’ll explain shortly.

The ripe nuts would go straight into preparation for eating or storage but the green kernels would need to be encouraged to mature and split naturally. I do this in the same way that I mature green tomatoes. Simply place them in a lidded tub or dry sack with a ripe apple for a week ot two. Once the shells have browned and split, it’s easy to extract the chestnuts.

The first thing I do with the shelled nuts is to fill a sink with cold water and tip a load in. The first thing you will notice is that a few may float to the surface. Pull these out and discard them. They will have weevil grubs inside. Check them over and you will find a tiny hole where the chestnut weevil (Curculio elephas) has bored into the nut to lay a single egg which will develop into a small grub. This feeds on the flesh inside the nut until it develops into an adult beetle. Ignore foragers who try to tell you that the cast nuts (i.e. those not still in the spiked kernel) are the ones that get weevils. That’s nonsense. The female chestnut weevil only attacks fruit still on the tree, so while it is still inside the spiky shell. Don’t let any of this deter you from harvesting sweet chestnuts, by the way. Isolating and removing the infested nuts is a simple process. If you miss one, the worst-case scenario is a bit of roasted protein that you or your fellow diners won’t even notice! As you take the remaining chestnuts from the water, lay them out on a tea-towel, pat off the water and allow them to air-dry. Check each one for weevil holes, even if they didn’t float.

If you intend to eat the nuts imminently, lay them out flat on a tray for about three days at room temperature, which will sweeten them perfectly before you eat them. You can store them in the fridge (still in the shell) for two or three weeks. As I tend to use mine at Christmas, I split them into batches and freeze them on the day of collection (after washing and drying them). This way I can pull a bag out to defrost for preparing a chestnut stuffing. For boiling or roasting as a snack, I de-frost a bag and lay the nuts out for three days before using them.

It’s important to remember that however you cook sweet chestnuts, you need to ‘score’ the shell with a sharp knife first. Cut a cross in the shell without cutting into the flesh inside. If you don’t, the nuts will explode … and you can take that as a ‘Health & Safety’ warning! You can microwave chestnuts (two minutes for an 850W oven), but in my mind, that’s just Philistine. It’s easy to overcook the nuts in the microwave too. The traditional way (a Christmas ‘must-have’ for my family) is to cook them over an open log fire in an old griddle pan. Bearing in mind my warning above, if you cook them behind a fine mesh fireguard, leave one of the nuts unscored. When it explodes, the rest are done! Another method is to roast the nuts in an oven for about half an hour at 200C. The simplest way, though, to cook and peel sweet chestnuts (and certainly the method to use if you are prepping them as an ingredient for stuffing or soup) is to drop them into a pan of already boiling water and simmer for five minutes. If you are only using them as an ingredient, just chop the nut in half before boiling. If you are going to eat them straight away use the cross-cut scoring method. Strain them and peel them as swiftly as you can … before they go cold. A small bowl of warm, peeled sweet chestnuts dipped in sea salt makes a lovely and healthy snack.

Copyright Ian Barnett, Wildscribbler, October 2019

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