GROWING AND FORAGING FOR… CHESTNUTS
Mature chestnut trees (Castanea sativa) are lovely but not suited to small gardens (see foraging hints below if you don’t have the space to grow one or two yourself at home!). If you do have the room to grow this crop, plant them out of harm’s way – at the back of a mixed shrubbery or at the edge of a paddock. Their burrs are prickly and, when they split and fall, the kina-sharp spines are fierce enough to pierce right through jandals and sneakers. Young chestnut trees don’t like heavy soil (in poorly drained soil, they’re susceptible to root rot) and nor do they appreciate a complete lack of irrigation. They are hardy, though, coping with freezing winters, but if you get severe spring frosts you can lose the new buds. Protect young trees from possums, rabbits, hares and grazing stock. It’s a good idea to buy one of each of the available varieties (sold as ’1005’, ’1002’ and ’1015’). While ’1002’ and ’1015’ cross-pollinate well, ’1005’ is self-fertile but still prefers the company of ’1002’.
WHEN TO HARVEST
Chestnuts are in season now. Unlike most nuts, which are picked and dried before consumption, chestnuts have to be eaten fresh (or frozen) because they are 50 per cent water. Store fresh chestnuts in your vegetable bins in the fridge.
HOW TO EAT
Steamed or boiled for half-an-hour in salty water, chestnut flesh is as tender as a waxy new potato. Slip the nuts out of their skins and mash with olive oil and garlic, chicken stock and English thyme or whipped cream and chocolate.
If you intend to roast them over an open fire, or a barbecue plate, use a sharp knife to score a cross in the skin of each nut to release the steam (remember, they’re 50 per cent water) as they cook. They take about 15-20 minutes to cook and will pop easily out of their skins when done. Let them cool a bit before eating or you’ll burn your fingers and tongue.
Chestnuts have a long and proud history. They’ve been an important crop in Europe for thousands of years, both for their nuts and their timber, and early settlers planted many trees upon their arrival in New Zealand. Some of those trees remain in public parks and street plantings.
If you’re going foraging, be careful not to confuse chestnuts with the toxic shiny brown seeds of horse chestnuts ( Aesculus hippocastanum). Horse chestnut conkers have spiky outer shells rather than prickles, and they are smooth and round, whereas chestnuts are pointy at the top.