Foraging and feasting

Sweet chestnuts: from tree to table

Witnessing the change of seasons is a real joy for me and one I am able to indulge in every day as I walk my dog in the woods.  This week, I couldn’t help but notice all the shiny, brown, sweet chestnuts underfoot.  So I pulled out a little bag from my pocket – it was actually an unused dog poo bag! – and filled it up with hundreds of lustrous, jewel-like nuts.  They’re gorgeous trees in flower, then they offer up this wonderful, edible treat as well. Who doesn’t love sweet chestnuts?  Their outer shells, like clusters of little yellow hedgehogs, are covered in needle-sharp spikes, so it’s best to wear gloves when foraging, but you can always just gently roll the casing under your boot until the nuts pop out.  They tend to grow in groups of three and I usually only take the fattest one, leaving the other two for the squirrels which seems like a fair arrangement. Do collect lots though because the shell accounts for a good deal of the weight and when you get home, lay them out in a single layer somewhere cool if you’re not going to use them immediately.

I used mine straight away because I was out walking with a friend and we thought it would be a fun afternoon to cook them up together.  We roasted half and boiled half – just as a bit of an experiment. They say you need to score the nuts before doing either so they don’t explode.  If you’re roasting on an open fire and not too house-proud, you can just score the one and when it explodes, you know all the others are good to go!

Roasting chestnuts

I found the quick boil method to be the easier and safer of the two, but either way, there’s a lot of hurried shucking after the cooking to extract the yummy insides while they are still warm and easy to deal with.  Quite a lot of work for a relatively modest offering but that’s often the way with free food. You don’t do it to save money; you do it to connect with nature and hopefully with friends!  Cooking together is a lovely thing to do.

Sweet chestnuts are rich in fibre and mineral salts but low in fat compared with other nuts. They’re good for digestion and promote healthy skin.  They are gluten free – so great for celiacs – but not sugar-free – so perhaps not so good for diabetes-sufferers.

We decided to make two chestnut recipes: Chestnut and Chocolate Truffle Cake and Cauliflower and Chestnut Soup.  Actually, I have to admit I wasn’t really that keen on the soup idea. Even though I do like cauliflower, I thought it might turn out to be a bit bland and boring. But I was so wrong.  It truly was the tastiest soup I’ve ever had and I am a bit of a soup queen so that’s really saying something.

Here’s the soup recipe, courtesy of BBC Good Food.  It takes very little effort and not too much time either.

Note: Don’t mistake conkers, the fruit of the horse chestnut tree, for sweet chestnuts.  They also come in a spiky shell, but with little stubby spikes, not needles.  If you don’t scream when picking up the outside casing, they’re conkers. Conkers are bigger and plumper – without the little tuft of fur at the apex – and they’re poisonous!

Cauliflower & Chestnut Soup

BBC Good Food

Prep: 30 mins Cook: 25 mins

Serves: 4 

This creamy, vegetarian soup, from Becky Lovatt, is a great way to use up leftover chestnuts, or use freshly roasted chestnuts for a more intense flavour

Ingredients

  • ½ tbsp olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely chopped
  • 1 large cauliflower, (about 600g/ 1lb 5oz), cut into florets
  • 250ml milk
  • 850ml vegetable stock
  • 150ml double cream
  • 200g chestnuts
  • 25g grated parmesan cheese

Method

  1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onion. Cook over a gentle heat for 8-10 mins until the onion softens. Add the cauliflower, milk and stock. Bring to a simmer, cooking for 10-12 mins until the cauliflower is tender.
  2. Add the cream, season well and bring back to the boil. Take off the heat, throw in the chestnuts and blend with a hand blender until smooth. Taste and add more seasoning, if you like. To serve, top with shaved Parmesan, black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil.

And here’s the cake recipe, courtesy of Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall, which was also absolutely scrumptious, but not for anyone on a diet!

Chestnut and Chocolate Truffle Cake

Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall

Prep: 20 mins Cook: 45 mins

Serves: 6 

Ingredients

  • 250g (9 oz) dark chocolate
  • 250g (9 oz) unsalted butter
  • 250g (9 oz) peeled cooked chestnuts (tinned if you like)
  • 250ml (9 fl oz) milk
  • 4 eggs
  • 125g (5 oz) caster sugar

Method

Preheat the oven to 170°C / 325°F / Gas Mark 3 and grease and line a 23cm / 9” diameter spring-form type tin.

  1. Melt the dark chocolate and unsalted butter together in a pan over a very gentle heat. In another pan, heat the chestnuts with milk until just boiling, then mash thoroughly with a potato masher (or process to a rough purée in a machine).
  2. Separate the eggs, put the yolks in a bowl and mix with caster sugar. Stir in the chocolate mixture and the chestnut purée until you have a smooth, blended batter.
  3. Whisk the egg whites until stiff and fold them carefully into the batter. Transfer the mixture into the greased, lined cake tin and bake for 25–30 minutes, until it is just set but still has a slight wobble.
  4. If you want to serve the cake warm, leave to cool a little, then release the tin and slice carefully – it will be very soft and moussey. Or leave to go cold, when it will have set firm.
  5. It can be served with double cream, especially when warm, but it is also delicious on its own. It looks great topped with chocolate shavings and chestnuts.

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