By last weekend, the leaves really started to turn into the brilliant autumnal shades, the wind had picked up and there were many leaves on the ground, perfect for walking and kicking through. And you have to make the most of it before it rains and the light, fluffy leaves turn to mush. No fun kicking your way through that.
Last Friday afternoon, Tim and I went for a long walk to Dunham Massey. It’s a lovely walk from our house and takes about an hour each way. The reward at the other end is either tea and scones at the Dunham Massey Tea Room, or a drink at the Swan with two Nicks just on the other side of Dunham.
But it is on the way back that I discovered one of Britain’s gems: Sweet Chestnuts. Not to be confused with Horse chestnuts (conkers), which aren’t edible… I had only eaten roast chestnuts once, and I can’t say I was particularly taken by them, but I thought I would give them another go – especially as they are free food.
Let me just fill you in on a little background. Early this year Lisa bought me a very interesting cook book. It is looks like an exact reproduction of someone’s Scottish granny’s recipe book – filled with local recipes, old fashioned recipes, notes and scribbles. This fuelled my interest in wild food and foraging. There is nothing as satisfying as eating pure, organic wild food.
Earlier in the spring, Tim and I set off to Devisdale (small natural park area near us) to pick nettles for nettle soup. I really didn’t know what it would taste like, but thought we ought to try it. And it was so tasty! The down side was that it took about 2 hours to wash all the insects off the nettles, but other than that, worth it.
Now Tim has bought me a little ‘Wild food’ booklet and I am so keen to look for other edible delights growing nearby. The first of those was, of course, the sweet chestnut.
You need to wait for the chestnut pods to be blown off the trees and onto the ground. They start off green and spiky, but dry out and split open to deliver mature chestnuts inside. Tim and I one day and Lisa and I another day went collecting. And what a large amount we came back with. I think it was about 6 kgs between us!
Next, we had to experiment on how is best to eat them. We boiled them in their shells/peels, boiled them out of their shells, roasted them etc to try and find the most efficient way to get them into an edible state. And in my humble (and perhaps ignorant) opinion, the most efficient way is to boil them for a few minutes to soften the shells, then peel them. It is also much easier to remove the bitter-tasting ‘veins’ (don’t know the correct terminology) when the peels are soft. They don’t taste much different if they are roasted. In fact, it is so easy to over-roast them, especially if they are different sizes as the smaller ones are ready well before the larger ones. The only thing roasting really adds is the delicious smell while they are roasting.
So you might wonder what we’ve done with them:
– The first and second batches was merely roasted and eaten
– The second was, however, eaten in a variety of different ways to see which combinations suits them best. And the overwhelming conclusion was that they are best with sweet accompaniments. And trust me, we tried many things. Best combination was golden syrup and vanilla sugar flavours.
– The third batch was tested on friends! We had Paul and Rachel over for Sunday dinner, and dessert was ‘glace marron’. The chestnuts were boiled, peeled, then added to a simple syrup made with sugar and water and boiled a little longer. The result: successful and delicious.
– The fourth batch was making soup. It’s a very simple soup made from a pack of bacon, stock made from the bacon burny-bits, two handfuls of peeled chestnuts, chopped finely in a blender, and a little cream. Once again, we used a friend as a guinea pig – and luckily it was a great success too. Overwhelming success actually. I think that will be repeated quite soon.
The one interesting thing about chestnuts is that they’re rich in carbohydrates, so they’re lower in calories than other nuts. But they also have a completely different texture to normal nuts. They aren’t a dense or heavy, and some of them almost have a potato-like floury texture. And the more you boil them, generally the sweeter they become.
We still have approximately 3-4 kgs left. If I have the time and energy, I would like to try a few other things – especially the chestnut jam/paste. But at this stage time is my enemy.
My wild food book is also temping me to make some rosewater, rosehip tea and rose syrup. But I don’t know whether I am going to have the time to collect the rosehips as we are away all weekend, this weekend and not sure whether the hips will still be around in another week’s time. Only time will tell.