Foraging sweet chestnuts in the UK
One of the great delights of autumn is foraging sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa) from your local woodland. European people have been collecting these delicious and nutritious little food parcels for thousands of years.
These tasty nuts are now a staple of Autumn and winter high streets, being readily available from fire heated braziers in many major cities. But buying them can only ever offer a fraction of the pleasure as foraging.
With the majority of wild plant foraging, you mostly need to spot the plant you are after, and simply harvest by cutting or pinching out the leaves, stems, or flowers.
Whereas with sweet chestnuts, you will find the need to search on the forest floor, excitingly scraping back fallen leaves and the carpet of open shells found under larger trees, all the while concentrating and looking around in expectancy, or hope, for its shiny dark brown fruits to reveal themselves like gems.
Their yields can be heavy in a good year, enabling you to find lots of them in a small patch of the ground directly under the tree. So foraging sweet chestnuts can be a fun family treasure hunt.
Although some authors may try and say that September is the start of the season, there is really no point in foraging sweet chestnuts earlier than October, because any that have fallen will have no real flavour when green and unripe.
You can begin looking for the ripe chestnuts in early October following a period of windy weather, when numerous green spiny shells will be easily found under and around the base of the tree.
However, many of these may also contain nuts that haven’t yet quite ripened, and naturally require a period of a few more days in their shells to finish off their brown colouring. Handily, the green nut shells begin to brown and split of their own accord when the fruits are pretty much ready for picking.
This plant is not to be confused with the inedible and potentially toxic horse chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum), which sometimes grows in close proximity to the sweet chestnut in park-lands and larger gardens.
The two trees are completely unrelated, even though the nuts look similar at first glance. Sweet chestnut is in fact related to the oak and beech trees, in the family Fagaceae. My article on horse chestnut covers the basic differences.
Botanical description to help identify Sweet chestnuts
Sweet chestnut cuts a distinctive figure in many parklands.
It can grow up to 35 metres. These trees are known for their broad crown, longevity and a massive trunk girth. Its narrow fissured grey-brown bark occasionally reveals blueish-green colours.
From a relatively young age, the plant begins to produce its distinctive spiralling bark pattern. In old age, the plant can produce beautiful gnarled burrs into eye catching shapes.
Its glossy green leaves will reach 20 -30 cm long, with margins that are reportedly unique when comparing it with any other member of the widely found British flora. Each of the serrations has a noticeable curved tooth.
The leaves are simple, oblong-lanceolate, and are alternate on the stem, with relatively short petioles.
The newer stems are ridged, usually a red-brown colour, and often heavily speckled with its array of lenticels. The alternate buds finish with a terminal bud close to a side bud.
This tree is one of the very last species to flower and set fruit, as well as being one of the last fruits to fall. Its long spikes of male catkin type flowers will appear late in the spring, typically around the 3rd week of June.
Smaller female flowers will be found nearby found towards the base of the spikes. For a good few weeks in early summer you can spot the swelling spiky shells together with the skeleton male flower stalks.
Habitats to look in when foraging sweet chestnuts
The plant is widely naturalised in many woodlands, though the larger more productive specimens will mostly be found in parklands and estate gardens. It is known in the UK as an ‘honorary native’, due to the ease in which the plant seeds and grows here.
The nuts are the new joy of October for me, just when any S.A.D may begin to kick in. During the last few years I have travelled quite a bit around Britain, but only this year have I found such a haul as I did in Devon just recently.
Harvesting sweet chestnuts
When foraging sweet chestnuts, you find them more easily on the floor although they will persist on the tree. If you want the nuts out of the bigger specimens, you will need to employ a stick, as always done with conkers.
Handling the spiny shells and freeing the prize can be a difficult business. You will likely need gloves, especially with the older fruits. A strong heal on sturdy boots greatly helps in breaking the freshly felled cases open.
Inside the cases, the nuts from the true wild species will be present in twos or threes, whereas nuts gleaned from the cultivar known as ‘marron’, will be on their own and substantially larger than the wild ones.
Traditional and contemporary uses of Sweet chestnuts
In the kitchen, sweet chestnut is a superb and versatile ingredient. It is one of the few nuts that contain little fat; instead, they have a surprisingly large amount of water. This means they are not suitable for processing into oil, but do produce a great flour.
You can use chestnuts for a few delightful seasonal treats, including chestnut purée, chestnut paté; turning it into flour for pastries and cakes, making chestnut stuffing,
On a visit to Devon recently, I was inspired by a friend into researching and experimenting with chestnuts more. And so followed a wild mushroom and sweet chestnut paté, then with thoughts to the yuletide festive period and winter solstice, we made a chestnut and port paté . I won’t say how fantastic that was, as you can make your own quite easily, but I will say I’ve since made a couple more batches at different friend’s houses.
I’m currently hooked, making some sweet chestnut purée for all manner of festive dishes, essentially following a recipe from this interesting site, and began trying to make the delicious but rightly expensive Marron Glace
These delicious candied chestnuts when cooked in the traditional style, require some time and dedication. My first attempt though followed the River Cottage recipe and video from Pam the Jam, but the end result is nothing like the fully candied Marron Glace that originated where the tree was plentiful. So more experiments are to come.
Sweet chestnut is one of the featured plants in my 2018 diary, and in my card games, available from my foraging resources shop.