Whilst researching a walk route through woodland yesterday, I could have sworn a tennis pro had served up an ace whizzing right past my ear! In fact, an elderly Sweet chestnut tree had that very moment cast a fresh spiky bundle of it’s annual seed and it must have picked up a fair old velocity by falling from such a height.
Food doesn’t get much fresher and, as autumn sets in, foraging for chestnuts makes for a great family activity on a weekend walk. Each year I harvest, prepare and freeze sweet chestnuts to make an easy seasonal stuffing on Christmas Day, here’s how to do it…
Making an Identification
Sweet Chestnut trees have the most magnificent long leaves, rounded at the base with saw like serrations on the edge leading to a point. Mature trees have a coarse rutted bark which swirls around the tree trunk.
Talk a walk through broadleaved woodland and keep an eye on the ground. You’re looking for spiky green balls, the spikes being long and needle like in appearance. The seed case may have split exposing the chestnuts inside but if not thats fine, you are about to learn the art of scuffing!
The ‘Art’ of Scuffing Sweet Chestnuts
Although unlikely to cause injury, the spikes are sharp so keep little ones’ fingers well away if you want a tear free forage. Wearing some stout footwear, knock a chestnut case onto some hard ground and scuff over the case with the ball of your foot.
Too hard and you will squash the chestnuts, too soft and you will end up playing football. Try this on soft ground and you will bury the chestnut, great for tree growing not so great for the Christmas stuffing haul.
With a bit of practice you will find the cases split open often ejecting the chestnuts or at least opening the case sufficiently for you to reach in and pick them out. Only select the freshest looking, plumpest and green seed cases and thereafter only the plump and rounded chestnuts inside.
Leave any deflated looking chestnuts or brown seed cases for nature to take its course. You never know, one of these could be fruit bearing trees in century or two or at the very least food for the wildlife.
Rinse any dirt off the chestnuts and Score a cross on the chestnut skins with a sharp paring knife.
Set a shallow pan of salted water to boil. The water needs to be on the most gentle of simmers, barely bubbling in fact. Place scored chestnuts in the pan and gently simmer for two minutes.
Remove and when cool enough to handle peel off the outer the skin to expose the chestnut. There may be a white coloured hairy skin on the chestnut fruit, this needs to come off as it tends to be unpleasantly bitter in taste.
Take time, and care, to remove all the skin so you are left with a pale yellow/green coloured fruit. Use the point of the knife to chisel any skin out of crevices.
Once cleaned, chop and check for critters (you can occasionally get a small grub inside) and voila! You have chestnuts to use in recipes as you see fit or, if you prefer, you can eat the chestnuts just as they are for a healthy snack.
For the cheats Christmas stuffing, freeze the chopped chestnuts until the big day whereupon you defrost them in time to add to a packet of stuffing mix with a knob of butter before baking in the normal way.