I’m stealing a march on the local squirrels, scooping up a bumper crop of sweet chestnuts in the city centre. It’s in an office car park and very few passers-by take any interest. They are missing out on a treat, because this year’s chestnuts are big and very tasty – and they won’t be able to buy British chestnuts in the shops, because all that is available to the wholesalers comes from China (or, if they are very lucky, from Spain).
I’m wondering why I don’t have to compete with anyone for this free harvest. Perhaps people don’t know whether they are sweet chestnuts or conkers. At one of those convivial Comms meetings recently, Jon confessed that he didn’t know which is which – so, for those of you who are unsure, here’s an infallible guide!
Sweet chestnuts are on the left of the photo. They have painfully prickly cases and the glossy little nuts have a tuft at the top. Conkers (on the right) have a much chunkier case and no tufts. They ripen at the same time – from now up until mid-November. Sweet chestnuts are delicious when cooked; conkers are inedible.
Maybe people don’t know how to cook them or think it isn’t worth the effort. It’s true that peeling chestnuts is not the best of kitchen chores… but, as my daughter discovered, it is definitely worth the effort. “Blimey,” she said, when I showed her how to peel the outer husk and the inner bitter skin (scorching hot), “I’m never going to bother to do this myself.” But after pinching a couple to taste, she changed her mind. “They’re really sweet – delicious, nothing like those waxy pre-packed ones that don’t taste of anything.”
(Here's a thought for the post-oil era and sustainable lifestyles for everyone. If I'm not peeling my own chestnuts (or processing any kind of food), who is doing it for me? What does it cost and how is it being done? Charlotte's just been telling me dreadful stories about Somalian ex-fishermen, forced by economic necessity to prepare tomatoes in Spain under awful conditions. And we've all heard the scandal about shipping prawns caught in British waters to the Far East, where cheap labour peels them and freights them back to us. Part of our Transition journey is to count the cost of this hidden labour and to do much more ourselves.)
You can roast chestnuts over an open fire in the traditional way (or in a hot oven or on the grill). If you’ve got a proper chestnut pan with holes in the base, so much the better – but you can improvise with a perforated tin. You must prick or score the chestnuts so that they don’t explode. Experts tell you to leave one nut unpricked – when it explodes, the others are ready to eat.
If I’m cooking with chestnuts, Jane Grigson advises that the most reliable way is to score the chestnuts on both sides, taking care not to cut right through the nut, then boil for eight minutes. The last step is the painful one: take the pan off the heat and peel the chestnuts as fast as you can – it gets much more difficult as they cool down, so leave them in the cooking water till ready to peel. You must remove the bitter inner skin.
Best recipes? If you are a meat-eater (there’s a Transition debate for another day!), then the chestnut and chorizo soup in the Moro cookbook is stunning, guaranteed to keep out the cold. If not, there are lots of lovely dishes, such as the chestnut and apple puree served for Thanksgiving.
Changing our behaviours and finding out what fun it is – that’s what Transition is all about. The postscript to this story is that I first got into gathering chestnuts ten years ago when I saw hundreds of them on the ground at Sandringham. I didn’t think Her Maj would miss them and I was determined to put them to good use. My family weren’t especiaily interested at the time, but my daughter joined me today to collect a few chestnuts for herself and said: ”It’s a great feeling gathering a seasonal harvest like this. You feel reconnected to nature.” And I’m not making it up – she really did say it!
What would make you pick up more food for free? Easy ways to identify things that are safe to eat; recipes; hints on when and where to find our wild harvest? We’d love to hear your comments.