As we edge closer to the festive season, supermarkets and grocery stores are finding room among their vegetable sections for trays of nuts. Walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds – all still in their shells – will almost certainly be among them and, if you’re lucky, you might also find edible sweet chestnuts, the best of the festive nuts. Read on for our guide to sweet chestnuts….
We don’t need to trouble the veg aisle for our sweet chestnuts this year because, a month back, we gathered our own from the nut-strewn grass beneath a sweet chestnut tree.
Extracting Sweet Chestnuts
If you’re on the hunt for them then sweet chestnuts look like their poisonous namesake, the horse chestnut (aka conker), but their spikes are longer and fiercer. So if the combination of ripeness and impact with the ground hasn’t extracted the nut from the shell then we suggest using a gentle thrust of the heel onto their spiny protective layers to persuade them to part with the goods, rather than go in with bare fingers.
Identifying Sweet Chestnuts
We would hope that nobody is going to confuse a sweet chestnut with a horse chestnut, but be sure you know the difference before you go eating anything. Besides the sweet chestnut’s bristles being longer, they will also be more tightly packed tighter together, while the shells turn brown in a shorter space of time. Inside, sweet chestnuts cluster together in groups of two or three and have a more triangular shape to them.
If you look at the chestnut leaves you’ll notice a further difference. The horse chestnut has a ‘compound leaf’, with five to seven lobes that fan around a single point. The sweet chestnut has glossy, oval-shaped serrated leaves that grow individually along the stem.
While you can find both sweet chestnuts and horse chestnuts in the same kind of locations, we’ve found edible sweet chestnuts more common in woodland areas than horse chestnuts, while parks and large gardens seem more likely to have horse chestnut trees.
Cooking Sweet Chestnuts
Whether you forage for your sweet chestnuts in the woods or the supermarket, you’ll need to cook them before eating them. There are two main ways to do this: boil or roast. Boiling is a useful method if you want to subsequently use them as an ingredient in another recipe, such as a nut roast or festive stuffing, but if you want to eat them on their own then we think roasting chestnuts gives them a better flavour.
Before cooking you need to first cut a few holes in the shell with a sharp knife to prevent potential nut explosions and help you to peel them when cooked. To do this, place the nut flat side down and make a couple of insertions with the tip of your knife on either side of the shell.
You can roast chestnuts in a pan on the stove top or by placing them in a hot oven. If going for the pan roast method, put them in a skillet without oil on a fairly high heat. Keep tossing as they toast and they’ll be ready when the outer shell blackens and starts to crack. If oven roasting chestnuts, pre-heat the oven to 200°C, spread them out on a tray, and cook for around 15 minutes, turning occasionally. If boiling, 15 minutes in simmering water should do the trick.
Storing Sweet Chestnuts
You can store fresh chestnuts (with shells still on) in the fridge for up to a month so you can start foraging for them now ready for December. Roasted chestnuts taste great hot, particularly on a cold Christmassy day, so peel when they’ve cooled enough to handle, sprinkle them with a pinch of salt if you wish, and enjoy. You can also stir them into Brussels sprouts for the ultimate Christmas dinner side dish.
Do you forage for your own sweet chestnuts? How do you cook your sweet chestnuts? Let us know in the comments.