How and where to forage for sweet chestnuts

Fraser Christian shows you how to enjoy gathering the fruits of the forest.

How and where to forage for sweet chestnuts

The sweet chestnut is a fine-looking tree with a broad, long twisting trunk and finger-like branches. In late autumn the windy storms are sure to release its tree-top hidden treasures, the sweet chestnut – not to be confused with the horse chestnut, or conker!

The fruits are carefully wrapped in a sharp spiky husk, and inside there are several nuts segmented together. The majority of the ones you find in the shops before Christmas are imported due to the large size, but as with most things in nature, size is normally a compromise on flavour.

If you're lucky there will be more than one good-sized nut in a husk, but patience and a good rummage around the undergrowth should reap fair rewards and even the small ones taste good.

If you're going to simply roast them on a fire, make sure you prick them first with a fork or similar, to avoid them exploding and landing in your lap!

Where you'll find them
The sweet chestnut tree can be found usually in woods, if that's not too obvious a point, but also in parks and roadsides. The older and more diverse the woodland, the better your chances of finding them. One word of advice: get up early, as close to first light, or the local squirrels will have taken most of them.

How to forage them
The best time is after a really good storm in late autumn, unless you want to spend useless energy throwing things at the trees to knock them off! First light, as mentioned, is the best time, but areas with few squirrels are also good. Any old bag or bucket is ideal for gathering the nuts and a pair of gardening gloves or similar make light work of the spiny outer casing.

How to identify them
The leaves of the tree are both broad and slender, with serrated edges. The fruit or chestnuts are protected by a round green jacket or husk, which is covered with fine prickly spikes, similar to the conker, but not as rugged. The protective outer contains segmented fruits that are apparent when they fall, though some may still be closed. It's unusual, though, for more than one of the fruits in each husk to mature into full size in the UK.

What you can do with them
Chestnuts are traditionally enjoyed roasted, either on open fires or sold on street corners and at fairs. They can be pickled, puréed, jammed and canned. Most chestnuts are grown in France and Spain. Their uses are widespread in southern Europe and a well-noted peasant food in Italy. Other uses have included extracting the starches for the whitening and stiffening of linen

Wild Forage

Wild Forage organises wild food and foraging courses along the seashore and in the countryside. Courses are run for small groups anywhere in the UK, plus individual courses in most southern counties. You can learn how to correctly identify and cook wild foods, as well as discover their medicinal and cosmetic qualities. For more info, visit www.wildforage.co.uk.

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