You’ll need your tin helmet!
Food editor Martin Hesp dons boots and protective headgear for an autumn forage in the woods
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.