Whenever I taste roasted chestnuts, it takes me back to the bustling night time Christmas markets of the UK. Such a festive atmosphere is difficult to reproduce back home in New Zealand where Christmas falls in the summer. Even when it’s not Christmas I love to eat chestnuts.
It’s rare to find fresh chestnuts in supermarkets even when in season in New Zealand, pureed canned chestnuts are the most commonly available option. Foraging is your best chance to gather them, unless of course you are lucky enough to have you own tree or grove of them. Fortunately, I now live in an area with chestnut trees that were planted over a century ago in a public area. And, along with some other observant locals, we have been able to gather a considerable amount and experiment with different ways to prepare them. In this guide, I’ll be sharing my tips on how to forage and cook chestnuts.
Identifying a chestnut tree
The sweet chestnut – Castanea sativa, is a tall, broad-leaved deciduous tree that can grow up to 35 meters in height. It’s a popular choice for parks and open spaces, its thick canopy provides ample shade in summer, but the tree sheds its leaves before winter.
While chestnuts are typically harvested in late autumn, identifying the sweet chestnut is easiest during the summer months. Look for the tree’s distinctive catkins and dense spiky green burrs, and remember to return in autumn.
How to forage for chestnuts
Once you have identified a chestnut tree, foraging chestnuts is as easy as picking them up off the ground. Ripe nuts fall from their burrs then you can collect them from below the tree. If the chestnuts are still in their burrs, you can gently step on the burrs to release them. It is recommended that you wear gloves when the ground is thick with prickly burrs to avoid getting splinters. Also, if like us you forage under trees when the chestnuts are still falling, a cap could be a good idea.
Each burr can hold 2 or 3 nuts, leave the smaller ones and ignore small green burrs as the nuts will be underdeveloped. A good indication that the chestnuts are ready to be collected is that the burrs open while still on the tree and the chestnuts begin falling freely to the ground, leaving the burr behind.
How to identify a sweet chestnut
You may find these two trees planted nearby each other so you’ll also need to learn to tell Sweet Chestnuts, which are delicious, apart from Horse Chestnuts. Horse chestnuts should not be eaten because they can cause abdominal pain and even nausea. Luckily, it’s easy to distinguish between the two kinds of chestnuts – both by looking at the chestnuts themselves and the burrs that you might find them in. While both nuts are brown, the prickly burr of a sweet chestnut tree holds 2 or 3 nuts. The individual chestnuts will have tasseled points – the tassel is confirmation that you have found a Sweet Chestnut.
Inedible horse chestnuts, on the other hand, are usually shinier and have a smooth texture. The burr of horse chestnuts is not hairy at all, the stiff spines are much shorter and spread out.
Once you know the difference, it’s easy to identify them even when they are on the ground together. However, it’s important to exercise caution when foraging for any food. If you are unsure about the identification, it’s best to avoid consuming it.
Depending on where you live there may be other varieties of chestnuts to learn to identify; for instance neither New Zealand nor Scotland have either Ohio Buckeye (Aesculus glabra) or Allegheny chinquapin (Castanea pumila) – both of which should not be consumed.
It’s important to note that foraging for sweet chestnuts on private property or in protected or conservation areas may be illegal. Be sure to check local regulations before setting out to collect nuts.
How to cook Chestnuts
Sweet chestnuts can be cooked in a variety of ways, with roasting and boiling being the most common methods. Roasting the chestnuts on a campfire, BBQ, or in the oven is a great way to enjoy them immediately. Boiling, on the other hand, is a preferable method if you intend to use the chestnuts in other recipes. You can store them in the freezer whole or grind them into a coarse powder, or easily make some chestnut flour. Chestnuts can be used in the same ways as other varieties of nuts, such as a snack, puree, or in desserts, stuffings, soups or pastries.
To begin cooking chestnuts, start by cutting an ‘X’ on the flat side of each nut with a sharp knife. Soaking the chestnuts in cold water for a few hours is not essential when roasting, but it can make them easier to peel. Regardless of the cooking method, cook the chestnuts for 15-20 minutes, or until the outer shell starts to peel away. Cooked chestnuts are easiest to peel when they are warm.
Foraging can be a great way to gather free wild food while enjoying the outdoors. Other ingredients I forage for include samphire, nasturtium seeds, walnuts . This year I have added rowan berries and sweet violets to my foraging calendar.
Apples and blackberries are definitely Autumn favourites. Below are some recipes I have made using them over the last few years.