Chestnuts – Castanea spp
Go on a country walk this autumn and you’ll likely come across these prickly delicacies. This little lane just down the road from me is littered with these golden brown seasonal nuts. If I had a store house I’d probably have enough for the entire winter! Sadly, being in a houseshare, squirrelling away stocks isn’t really an option this year… I’ll spare my housemates the inconvenience of chestnut shells.
A long time native to the British Isles, Miles Irving said that we have the Romans to thank for gifting us the Chestnut. Nowdays we celebrate them with the traditional Christmas dins. However… sadly, we don’t use it nearly as much as we should, outside of the festive period you rarely see them. But they have long been popular in Europe and are widely consumed there – especially in France, Greece and Italy. The Italian festive delicacy of Panforte originates from Siena and contains chestnut flour, nuts, spices and dried fruit. Though these days the chestnut flour is often replaced with wheat flour so check beforehand! Castagnaccio is another traditional Italian chestnut cake, originating from Tuscany.
The Frenchies are very partial to them and many patisserie favourites make use of chestnut puree. Chestnut creme patissiere (a creamy chestnut custard) is something else. Here on the other side of the pond, I sometimes try to recreate it using a pot of custard mixed in with chestnut puree but it’s never quite the same! You might also have heard of Marrons Glaces, which are basically whole crystallized chestnuts, often served at Christmas. My family in Brittany have an annual chestnut collecting and roasting party in the village, celebrating the season – a commonplace tradition in many rural areas around Europe.
Chestnuts also have along history of use in Asia – the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans have used Chestnuts for thousands of years. Like the French, the Japanese use them a lot in desserts.
Nutrition in a (chest) Nutshell
Though these are classed as a nut, they actually taste a bit more like a starchy food indeed they are rich in carbs (energy). Quite mild in flavour but earthy – a taste of Autumn epitomised.
Even better, this source of carbohydrates is naturally Gluten-Free. An important staple for anyone with celiac or gluten intolerance. Many people in mountainous areas still rely on Chestnuts as a primary source of energy, as grains can be hard to grow in that type of terrain. However, like any carbohydrate, eat in moderation as they are still relatively energy rich, a handful is enough! The high starch content lends them well to baking, the flour is ideal as a nutritious wheat replacement in baked goods. Ever had chocolate chestnut cake? Sublime. The nutty flavour has an earthy depth to it that goes perfectly in cakes, pie crusts, pancakes and biscuits. You can also use chestnut flour to thicken sauces/stews, as you would any flour. I’ve provided some recipe ideas below.
To boot they are naturally rich in fibre and have a low glycaemic load, meaning that they help to keep your blood sugar levels stable (unlike refined carbs), keep the bowels healthy and help to lower cholesterol.
Essential Fatty Acids
Though they are much lower in fats compared to other nuts, they are still good sources of essential fatty acids – beneficial for the skin, hormones, cardiovascular system and nervous system.
Source of Minerals
Potassium, manganese, magnesium, iron and copper. So they make for a good nutritious filler – in place of cheap refined white flour which is devoid of any nutrients. Minerals are important for bone health, muscle function and much more. The potassium content is also good for those with high blood pressure and/or fluid retention.
Bonus: Low in Phytic Acid/Oxalates
Unlike other nuts and sources of carbs, such as grains – they low in oxaltes and phytic acid, which means that you absorb most of the beneficial minerals contained within them (oxalates/phytic acids bind to minerals in foods preventing you from absorbing them and possibly leading to deficiencies). The low levels of oxalates also makes them good options for people prone to kidney stones.
Commonly found in the South of England and Europe. The trees are majestic, especially at this time of year as the leaves begin to change colour – though the picture above is in the summer when the leaves are still green but below you’ll see they change to a stunning variation of hues. Standing tall and weathered, our native Chestnut trees are often many hundreds of years old. You can forage for the nuts in mid-late October, this is the best time to collect them. Use sturdy gloves to protect your hands against the prickles… leather gloves are good insurance. To open just step on them, taking care not to squash the nuts inside. They are now ready to cook.
Remember // Horse Chestnuts are different to Sweet Chestnuts! The former are not generally edible – they don’t taste too good and eaten in large amounts would be toxic. Horse Chestnuts do however have their use in other areas. 1) The age old game of Conkers and 2) Herbal Medicine: internally and topically they are fantastic for treating venous problems and varicose veins… Fear not food forager, the 2 cousins are easy to tell apart. Sweet chestnuts have serrated leaves (like a knife edge – see close up pic below) and the nuts are covered in bristles like a brush. Horse Chestnuts leaves look totally different, the edges are much smoother and the shell of the nut has little knobbly spikes but no hairs.
In ‘The Forager Handbook’, Miles Irving shares a useful tip he learnt from an old gypsy. By burying the chestnuts in a hessian bag, the dampness of the soil prevents them from drying out. If you store them inside, the dry environment will leave them shrivelled after a few weeks. Well squirrels do bury their nuts so if it’s good enough for them… I’ve always said we can learn a lot from observing nature!
Roasted chestnuts roasted on an open fire and eaten au naturel are always an Autumn treat. You can also pop them into a hot oven – just be sure to cut a little into each nut prior (in an X shape) to prevent any explosions! Place on a baking tray in a pre-heated oven at around 200 degrees Celsius. Give them an occasional ruffle so they brown evenly. Peel when still hot and enjoy there & then as a snack. Goes well with a glass of mulled wine too… When I was a kid visiting England over Christmas, we used to head to Delamere Forest, Cheshire for a walk in the woods, followed by roasted chestnuts – a festive annual tradition. You’ll often find vendors dotted around forests in the UK selling paper bags of the freshly roasted nuts.
I personally like the taste of roasted chestnuts as I think it brings out the ‘nuttiness’ a bit more and I just love the smell of them roasting. However some people find them a bit dry this way so prefer boiling them. In this case, place the unpeeled nuts in a big pan of boiling water and boil for around 20 minutes or to your liking. Again peel when still hot. The bonus of this method is that there is no need to cut X into the nuts before cooking as they won’t explode!
If you just want to part-cook them for use in recipes, you can boil them for 10 minutes – just enough time to allow you to remove the tough outer skins. Then use as required in recipes.
To make chestnut flour as a way of preservation – for later use in other recipes, Hugh Fernleigh Whittingstall recommends doing the above, then grating the part cooked chestnuts with a grater. Spread out and allow to dehydrate in a warm dry place. You can also speed this up by roasting on a very low heat in the oven or in a food dehydrator. Once ready you can blend this to a powder and voila – you now have Chestnut flour. If you have a grain mill this will give a finer flour. If you’re aiming to be self-sufficient this is a good albeit time-consuming technique! Other foraging books just say to leave the chestnuts in their shells until in a dry place until they shrivel up naturally, then just shell and put in a blender. Can’t say I’ve tried either method so I couldn’t advise here.
Scarcity of Chestnuts in your area or Time Poor?
You can buy peeled vacumn packed chestnuts from most supermarkets these days. Also look out for jars/cans of pureed chestnuts, they make ideal kitchen staples – without the fuss of collecting, peeling and boiling them. A favourite jam brand ‘Bonne Maman’ sell pureed sweetened chestnuts for desserts. As much as I love the collection bit, time just isn’t a luxury we all have… sigh.
I’ve already mentioned the desserts and sweet treats you can make with Chestnuts… possibilities are endless! A few of my favourites are chestnut & apple pancakes; chocolate, chestnut & almond cake/torte; chestnut and hazelnut biscuits…. The list goes on. However they also make a great addition to savoury foods or as a filling staple, where they make a good replacement for other starches such as potatoes.
Savoury Chestnut Breads
Chestnut, Sage and Onion stuffing
To thicken sauces, soups or added to stews
Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and streaky bacon
A hearty garnish for roast dinners or addition to stir fries.
Salad Toppers. I like a warm beetroot salad with chestnuts, toasted hazelnuts and goats cheese.
River Cottage Chestnut Pancakes (2 serves)
100g Chestnut flour
250 ml of milk
Oil for frying
Birch Sap Syrup
* I like to use coconut oil as a cooking oil, replace the milk with coconut milk and use maple syrup instead of Birch Sap – only because the latter is harder to source!
- Just mix the eggs and flour into a paste… Add milk a little at a time mixing well. Leave this mix to stand for an hour.
- Heat a pan, add a little oil then fry a spoon at a time, spreading out a little. Cook until little bubbles start to form on the surface or it firms up. Flip over and cook for a couple minutes more.
- Serve with the maple syrup and maybe a little butter/coconut cream
- Hugh Ferneligh Whittingstall also has a nice recipe for Chestnut Macaroons… (River Cottage Handbook #7)
Phil Vickery’s Chestnut and Roasted Onion Bread
300g Chestnut Flour
100g Potato Flour
½ tsp gluten-free baking powder
1x 7g sachet yeast
Salt and pepper
1tsp xanthan gum
5tbsp olive oil
1 egg beaten
400ml warm water
* I also like adding fresh and dried sage to his recipe
- Using 2tbsp of the oil fry the onions gently then add 2tsp of the sugar stirring until golden.
- In another bowl add the yeast, xanthan gum and rest of oliveoil to the warm water – stir until all dissolved
- In a separate bowl mix the remainding dry ingredients together
- Stir in the onions and add the egg – stirring to combine
- Finally add the liquid part and mix well.
- Pour into a greased rectangular tin and cook in a preheated oven (180 C) for 30 mins or until risen and lightly browned. Cool and slice.
There you have it… a few ideas to make use of this abundant wild food!