Sweet chestnuts belong to the Fagaceae family and are characterised by their spiky outer shell, known as the burr or husk. When split open, they reveal 2-3 shiny, roughly triangular brown nuts with a distinctive tuft on the end and a flattened side.
The chestnut tree’s leaves are long, toothed, and arranged alternately, reaching 20-30 cm in length. These trees are known for their broad crown, massive trunk girth, and long lives! While not native to Britain, they have been widely planted and naturalised in many woodlands since Roman times.
Early autumn is the ideal time for chestnut foraging (especially after a period of windy weather) – when their outer husks begin to split. You’ll find the spiny nut shells at the foot of the tree, a light green which begins to brown and split when the fruits are ready for picking. Gloves are advisable, especially with older fruits, and wearing sturdy boots can help in breaking open the shells too!
Here in the UK, sweet chestnut trees are prevalent. Search for chestnut trees in mixed deciduous woodlands, parks, or along trails. Be cautious not to confuse them with horse chestnuts (Conkers), which are inedible.
The nuts are the only edible part and must be cooked before eating. Chestnuts have a sweet, nutty flavour and a starchy texture, unlike most protein-rich nuts.
They can be enjoyed roasted or boiled and incorporated into sweet and savoury dishes.
Roasting over fire enhances their natural sweetness, making them a proper treat on a cold day! To roast chestnuts, make a slit or cross in the outer shell – this means that they don’t explode when they heat up.
Chestnuts can be pureed into soups, stuffing for your Sunday roasts, delicious desserts, to make chestnut purée, chestnut paté, or even turned into a gluten free flour for cakes or to make pasta (check out our Chestnut Flour Pasta).
Chestnuts often feature in many Christmas traditions (sprouts and chestnuts, anyone?) and in France, marron glacés are particularly popular, a traditional recipe for crystallised chestnuts from the 18th century.
A real favourite of ours is turning our chestnut harvests into a tahini – either a sweet tahini to make our these chestnut chocolate tahini cookies or as a savoury tahini, to use to make a deliciously autumnal salad dressing!
Here are a few recipe ideas:
A true classic – Chestnut Risotto
Roasted whole chestnuts will keep in the fridge for a couple of days when wrapped in foil, or you can freeze them for several months.
Chestnuts are a good source of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, folate, and manganese. They also provide a third of your daily required carbohydrate intake and 44% of your daily required vitamin C intake, boosting the immune system.
Chestnuts have a rich history in Southern Europe and Asia, often symbolising fertility and abundance. Roasting chestnuts is a cherished practice during the autumn/winter season globally – growing up in Italy there were many a chestnut roasting festivals throughout the Autumn, called a ‘Castagnata’.
Sweet chestnut wood has been used to build furniture, prized by carpenters and joiners for its distinct grain and colour.
Be cautious when handling chestnuts in their husks; they can be prickly. Wear gloves to avoid getting pricked!
Chestnuts have a high moisture content, so store them in a cool, dry place or refrigerate for an extended shelf life.
It’s important to note the difference between sweet chestnuts and horse chestnuts (conkers), which are toxic when consumed. Edible chestnuts have fine pointy spines, while horse chestnuts have multiple warty projections, fewer spines, a glossy shell, and are more rounded. Conkers also don’t have a tufty end like sweet chestnuts do.
Many of our Cookery Courses include a short foraging walk as part of the day, introducing you to a handful of commonly found wild ingredients.
Essential if you’re picking on private land. As with everything, respect is key and goes a long way.
If in doubt, leave it out.
Why rush? Nature isn’t going anywhere! Take time to ensure you safely identify your finds.
One step at a time.
No one becomes an expert overnight. Build up your identification skills and your confidence will grow.
Enjoy the process.
Foraging is not only about what you pick but the experience – Immerse yourself in nature and appreciate the little things. The fresh air, birds chirping, a light breeze or the feel of soil beneath your feet.
With an abundance of forage at your doorstep, why not start local?
The 10% rule.
Only take what you need (or 10% of what is available). This not only means that you leave plenty for other foragers, but also local wildlife. We want to enjoy our ecosystem not damage it.
Leave room for regrowth.
Never uproot a plant so that it is always able to regrow after you have foraged from it.
Wash before consumption.
Always give your foraging finds a good wash before consuming, especially when picking on busy routes/path.