You’ll need your tin hel­met!

Food ed­i­tor Martin Hesp dons boots and pro­tec­tive head­gear for an au­tumn for­age in the woods

Western Morning News (Saturday) - - Food -

If sea­sons have flavours, then the taste of late-au­tumn can surely be summed up in a nut­shell. It’s a thin, shiny, beau­ti­fully coloured nut­shell and it can be a tricky thing to re­move, but when you get into the crunchy, creamy white flesh of the sweet chest­nut your palette is con­fronted by the pure sen­sa­tion of this time of year.

And what a year it’s been. As with so many other fruits of the for­est, the hot summer has re­ally helped the West­coun­try chest­nut crop grow large and fat.

Whether you cook your chest­nuts over hot coals and burn your fin­gers peel­ing them be­fore pop­ping them straight into your mouth with a dab of salt, or use the sweet, silky, cooked flesh to thicken a sus­tain­ing soup, sauce or stew, there’s no doubt that this mirac­u­lous nut will speak to you of au­tum­nal woods and moody, dark­en­ing days.

I say mirac­u­lous, be­cause to me that’s what a sweet chest­nut is. You would need a dozen peo­ple to link arms in or­der to hug the base of one of my favourite lo­cal chest­nut trees, and some­how it seems amaz­ing that this vast Go­liath of the woods has the an­nual job of pro­duc­ing such a tiny, del­i­cately flavoured nut.

Of course, you have to be care­ful when har­vest­ing these trea­sures of the woods. Armed in an evil spiky cov­er­ing that looks like a syl­van ver­sion of a Sec­ond World War mine, the tum­bling fruit can in­flict painful dam­age on the un­sus­pect­ing scalp as it hur­tles earth­wards. I know, I’ve been hit.

But apart from this rather ob­vi­ous hazard, the act of chest­nut gather­ing is a peace­ful and ab­sorb­ing one. It re­quires good boots with which you scuff at the spiky cov­er­ings to re­lease those beau­ti­ful brown nuts in­side, in an ac­tion rem­i­nis­cent of a bull about to charge.

Some trees are bet­ter than oth­ers, while some woods pro­vide a larger or a smaller nut de­pend­ing upon the sub-species of cas­te­nea sativa (to give the Eu­ro­pean chest­nut its Latin name). As I say, I’m wax­ing lyri­cal about my favourite nut be­cause it has been a very good year for them. Like the ceps I wrote about a cou­ple of weeks ago – the chest­nut is in glut.

Warm sum­mers do en­sure a bet­ter crop of the kind of wild delights which are more of­ten to be seen in South­ern Europe. Chest­nuts orig­i­nally come from far to the south of us and have never been re­garded a na­tive of these shores.

Like so many of our seem­ingly in­dige­nous plants and foods it was first im­ported by the Ro­mans who liked to take their treats with them wher­ever they went. Who can blame them? In the case of the chest­nut they not only got a de­li­cious morsel with bound­less culi­nary uses, but they got a tree with a good hard wood.

We are lucky to have any chest­nuts at all if the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence is any­thing to go by. Across the Atlantic, chest­nut-blight is a sort of US ver­sion of Dutch Elm Dis­ease and it has de­stroyed more than 95 per cent of the na­tive trees. For­tu­nately it doesn’t af­fect our Eu­ro­pean chest­nut, nor the Ja­panese one which the Amer­i­cans are rapidly in­tro­duc­ing in an at­tempt to re­stock their woods.

I’ve seen pho­to­graphs of the Ja­panese chest­nuts and they are mas­sive things com­pared to the nib­bles which fall from our trees. But again, that might be some­thing to do with cli­mate be­cause you only have to look at spec­i­mens im­ported from Spain to re­alise that size re­lates to warmth.

Our chest­nuts re­ally are grow­ing at the coolest north­ern lim­its of this fruit­ing species – so at least we nut-pick­ers in south­ern Eng­land can con­sole our­selves that we are en­joy­ing the very best crop that Bri­tain has to of­fer. But size does mat­ter, be­cause the smaller the nut the more fid­dly the pro­ce­dure for re­leas­ing it from its shell. If you are go­ing to use your chest­nuts in cook­ing then the best way to de-shell is to cut away the beige-coloured base with a sharp knife. Do it as close to the shell as you can so as to leave more flesh, and what you end up with is ba­si­cally a chest­nut with a bare bot­tom. Throw this into boil­ing water for a few min­utes and you’ll be sur­prised how eas­ily the rest of the shell and the bit­ter, sub-cu­ta­neous skin is to pull away.

A hand­ful or two of these fleshy orbs in­tro­duced to a soup, stew, casse­role or sauce can be a rev­e­la­tion. That’s be­cause the nuts soften in cook­ing to be­come what might be best de­scribed as an in­ter­est­ing sort of dumpling – or, if cooked fur­ther, will break down al­to­gether into a floury con­sis­tency which, hap­pily and de­li­ciously, thick­ens any sur­round­ing liq­uid.

If you’re not up to the recipes then you can al­ways hud­dle around an open fire on one of these stormy au­tum­nal nights and roast the nuts – mak­ing sure you’ve pricked them first to avoid the in­evitable ex­plo­sions which will oth­er­wise oc­cur.

Chest­nuts are de­li­cious and are free if you pick your own. So why not take a bas­ket into the woods this week­end and en­joy the full flavour of the sea­son? Oh, and don’t forget to wear a thick, pro­tec­tive hat, es­pe­cially if the wind is blow­ing and the lit­tle bomb­shells are rain­ing from above.

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