How to gather, store and eat sweet chestnuts

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Posted Dec 6 2018 by Jessie Watson Brown of Nettleseed
Sweet chestnuts make a delicious edible treat

It’s that time of year when the delicious smell of roasting chestnuts fills the air. Jessie Watson Brown shares her tips for foraging, cooking and storing sweet chestnuts for year-round use.

Recently on a road trip through France, I happened to be in the Dordogne in sweet chestnut season, in mid-October. I live in Devon where on a good year we might get some fair sized chestnuts, but down in southern France they are massive! And so every spare space in the car was filled with bags of these wonderful nuts.

It’s defiantly worth doing a chestnut pick in the UK too, as the great thing about sweet chestnuts is that, unlike, say, a dandelion leaf, they actually really fill you! They are a delicious and versatile wild food, and are one of the few easily pickable wild carbohydrates.

You can roast them, boil them, or dry them for later storage.

A good few hours gathering and you can easily fill a few sacks – it’s worth going for the big ones.

Picking

It’s worth finding a tree with some real good sized chestnuts, so hunt around the woods until you find them. Make sure the ones you put in your gathering basket have no insect holes and are firm (if they feel spongy when you squeeze them then leave them in the woods).

The outer casing is very very spiky, so I tend to carry a stick around to try to minimise splinters, and a good ‘stamp and twist’ technique with your boots works well too. The aim is to get the chestnuts out the casing with minimum puncture wounds.

Often there will just be one or two bigger chestnuts in each prickly shell, those are the ones worth picking.

Storing

Once home, I put the whole lot into a bucket of water and any that float are thrown away – they generally have air in them from insect burrows and aren’t worth keeping. Lay them out as a single layer so they dont go mouldy – they should keep for about a week like this in a cool place. Alternatively you can freeze them whole.

Chestnuts have two shell layers. An outer, shiny, harder shell, then a thinner inner layer that is, when fresh, totally stuck to the chestnut. This inner layer is high in tannins and therefore tastes astringent and unpleasantly bitter.

Cooking

To roast chestnuts, make a slit or cross in the outer shell – this means that they don’t explode when they heat up. Then pop them on a tray in a medium oven for 20-30 minutes. Alternatively they are delicious straight on the embers of a fire. Keep them moving to avoid burnt patches.

Once roasted they should be soft and sweet inside, with both layers of shell coming away.

Roasted chestnuts – also a popular street food around the world.

Alternatively you can boil them from fresh, which can yield perfectly peeled chestnuts. Slit the chestnut and pop into boiling water for a few minutes. Remove them and carefully peel off the two layers – this is best done wearing rubber gloves (they will be hot!). The inner shell layer is easy to separate only when hot and reattaches once the chestnut is cooled so I tend to do them in batches of about 8 at a time.

Drying

For longer term storage, I like to peel and dry them. Whilst still fresh, peel off the outer layer. Halving the chestnut works well for this. I use a knife and as it’s so time consuming I tend to do it when chatting to friends… sometimes they offer to help which halves the work!

I then dry them fairly quickly, over a heat source like a woodburner, or in a dehydrator. This means the inner shell becomes papery and dry and simply flakes off.

The inner shell becomes papery and brittle and separates easily once the chestnuts are dried.

Dried chestnuts store for about a year well. Just soak overnight to rehydrate then boil and eat in soups, puddings, or ground for flour.

A good winter store. I don’t tend to worry if there are a few bits of papery inner shell left over. It’s not worth the time.

A friend came over and when I offered him some he adamantly refused saying he foraged some and found them disgusting! After talking we realised he had picked Horse Chestnuts…. Definitely not for eating! To tell them apart, the inedible horse chestnut outer casing is much less spiky, and each individual conker doesn’t have a hairy point, which sweet chestnuts do have.

Just to be clear – these are Horse Chestnuts and not to be eaten.