The tree produces three nuts in a spiky case. They grow fantastically well in the UK and can produce a bumper harvest. When the spiky cases fall to the floor, sweeping away the leaves reveals the shiny bounty.
Sweet Chestnuts are not to be confused with Horse Chestnuts (inedible conkers). The broad trunked tree has long leaves and catkins in the summer. The horse chestnut fruit is soft with short stubby spikes containing one rounded conker (although very rarely two or three). The sweet chestnut spikes are longer, with hair-like spikes which make the skins harder to tackle, and contain numerous nuts that have a flat side to them.
Throughout England and Wales they are easy to find once you know what to look for. Deciduous forests with old trees are best. Also check out parks and wooded areas.
As the leaves fall, so do the chestnuts. Each year varies so when out and about, keep an eye on the chestnut trees from October, as when the crop hits the ground, it's a race between you and the squirrels!
As soon as they hit the ground, start collecting to prevent deterioration from the damp forest floor. Locate a good stick to sweep away the leaves. Gloves are also handy if the cases aren't split.
To keep until Christmas here are some tips. Check chestnuts for holes or cracks, be ruthless at this stage. After much trial and error, by far the best method is to blanch the chestnuts before freezing. Add the chestnuts to a large pan of boiling water, bring back up to a rolling boil for 5 minutes, drain and refresh in cold water for 3 minutes. Peeling straight away means that the skins come off easily, so settle down in front of the fire and get to work. If you want to keep the Chestnuts for roasting then it is good to keep them hanging in onion bags, this keeps air circulating round them, if they get damp, they get mouldy and can deteriorate quite quickly.
If you want to eat your chestnuts straight away, it's best to roast them. Make a small nick in the bottom of the nut. It will open up as they are cooking and make them much easier to open and peel. The Italians like to pour over a little wine or grappa which certainly brings out the flavour!
Alternatively, why not try our fabulous Chestnut And Truffle Chocolate Cake?
They are also excellent in burgers and go wonderfully well with game and stronger meats. Mixing ground meat with a mixture of finely and roughly chopped chestnuts gives a variety of texture. To avoid dry burgers add ground roasted meat to the chestnuts, along with onions, herbs, meat juices and an egg to bind.
Chestnuts are also excellent in a stuffing for any meat. For a vegetarian treat, apples stuffed with chestnuts and rice are delicious. Perfectly peeled chestnuts can be made into marons glace, and less perfect ones, sweet chestnut puree.
Words: Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
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