Chestnuts aren’t just for conkers, says keen gardener and our founder, Jennifer Irvine.
There are two types of chestnut in the UK-the spiky, sweet chestnut that’s edible, and its smoother cousin the horse chestnut, which is toxic to eat, and the one we use for conkers. Leave these for the children to play with and explore woodland areas for the hedgehog-like cases of the sweet chestnut this month.
How to identify them
Sweet chestnuts are easy to forage, as they only fall from trees when they’re ripe and ready to eat, usually from mid-September until November. I’m lucky to have a tree on my driveway, so as soon as we see them raining down, my daughters and I race out to gather wheelbarrows full of them. Identify them by their fine, sharp spikes (the horse chestnut has coarser, spikes) – see below. Inside, you’ll see two to three shiny, triangular-shaped nuts with a pointed end (conkers are smooth, with no point). I like to roll them under my foot to open them – an easier and much less painful way of getting to the goods inside. No one wants to take a spike to the hand!
How to enjoy them
You’ll probably end up with a whole pile of sweet chestnuts, so planning ways to use them up is a good idea. By the time November comes around, I make sure I’ve picked my fair share for Christmas. You can use them in both savoury and sweet dishes or eat them whole as a savoury snack. We love to toss chopped chestnuts into stuffing, rice and grain mixes, and sprinkle them over salads or roasted meat. Chestnuts are also delicious added to a crumble topping for an extra nutty texture or stirred into a warming winter porridge.
How to roast them
Follow these simple steps:
- Using a sharp knife, make a cut across the middle of each chestnut.
- Heat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/ gas 6. Arrange the nuts on a tray and roast for 30 min or until the cut widens and the flesh is visible.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool slightly. Shell the chestnuts while still warm, then serve whole or chopped.
If you’re after a more unusual way to use your haul, try making chestnut flour:
- Use a serrated knife to make an X on the flat side of each nut before arranging them on a baking tray (scoring them first allows steam to escape from the flesh and prevents nuts exploding in the oven).
- Heat the oven to 200°C/fan 180°C/ gas 6, then roast the nuts on a tray for around 25 min. Remove from the oven and cool just enough to handle and peel. The shells and inner skin will come away easily when the nuts are still warm.
- Slice the nuts in half, then return them to the baking tray. Turn down the oven to its lowest temperature and leave them for 12-24 hours to dehydrate. You’ll know the nuts are ready when they’re so hard you can’t break them with your fingers. Finally, use a food processor or blender to grind your dried chestnuts until the flour reaches the degree of fineness for your chosen recipe. The flour can then be kept frozen or refrigerated up to six months. Use it to make sweeter, more filling pancakes, cakes or non-yeasted breads.