It’s been a long hot summer, with almost no rain since May. Now the clouds have come and are showering their bounty on the thirsty upturned faces of all below. The forest floor is bare where last year it was covered in mushrooms of diverse and fabulous forms. The hedgerows are laden with rose hips and haws, though the teased glut of blackberries – the spring was a riot of blossom – is in reality a smattering of hard and desiccated fruits.
After a brief rain shower, I venture to the woods to see what’s what. My usual spots for boletes are bereft of any fungi whatsoever, edible or not. The patch where, last year, I harvested a basket of winter chanterelles shows promise, with a few tiny pins of mushrooms just peeking above the moss, but nothing worthwhile as yet. I do, however, stumble upon a gigantic chestnut tree that reaches up through the autumn mists, and above the forest canopy, with mastodon tusks tipped green. The ground below the tree is covered in the spiky husks of chestnuts. Most have been emptied by hungry scuttling things, but there are a few that are worth collecting for the kitchen.
The wild, or sweet, chestnut tree (Castanea sativa) is not a native British tree, but was introduced by those great importers, the Romans. Alexander the Great is said to have planted chestnut trees as he rampaged across the globe. It is now fairly common in woodland and parks, and can grow to impressive heights. The leaves are large, long ovals, with slightly pointed ends and serrated edges. The nuts are encased in a sheath of thick spines – thick gloves are crucial – and there are usually three or more chestnuts inside. The nuts themselves, however, seldom live up to the promise of the great tree from whence they drop.
Usually October and November are the months for wild chestnuts, but regardless of timing they are often tiny malformed things with little actual flesh. Sometimes you do come across a good crop, more often later in the season when the seed has had time to fully develop, although the squirrels also know this. Be careful, as they’re very spiny, and require some work to remove them from their sheaths.
Chestnuts are a good source of carbohydrate, something that is not easy to come by in foraging. They are, for a nut, low in protein and in fats. They have been used as a staple food for centuries, especially in places where cereal crops grow poorly. There is not much to be confused with the sweet chestnut, perhaps only horse chestnuts (conkers) – these are toxic. Always be 100% sure of the identity of a wild food before eating.
In the kitchen – if you are lucky enough to get a handful or more – chestnuts are a great ingredient. Simply roasted over a fire or in the oven they are a treat (be sure to make a slit in the skin before cooking or they’ll explode). They go well with (annoyingly) mushrooms, and with game. It is possible to make chestnut flour. Part cook your chestnuts, peel, and grate. Dry the grated chestnut well in a low oven or dehydrator and then blitz in a food processor to a fine powder. The resulting flour is delicious used in cakes, pancakes, breads, all manner of things.
Kale with wild chestnuts and bacon.
Kale is a fabulous brassica; easy to grow, ornamental in appearance, delicious, and good for you. It’s slight iron flavour is a good counterpoint to the sweet flavour of the chestnuts and the salty bacon. This dish can be served as a side with a Sunday roast, or as a quick (once the chestnuts are dealt with) lunch.
Ingredients serves 2 (the amounts given here are rough – adjust according to number/hunger of people)
2 good handfuls of kale, tough central stalks removed
2 good handfuls of chestnuts
3 rashers smoked streaky bacon
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon caraway seeds
1 handful flat leaf parsley, chopped
dry white wine
To prepare the chestnuts, boil them in water for a good ten minutes. Take off the heat, then carefully remove them one by one (use gloves), make a small incision down the side, and peel. They may crumble somewhat, so be sure to retain as much of the flesh as you can. Set aside until needed.
Roughly chop the kale, and give it a good wash. Blanche it in boiling water for two minutes, then plunge into cold water to stop it cooking further. Drain well, and set aside.
Thinly slice the peeled shallots, finely chop the garlic, and put in a pan with a knob of butter. Set on a low-medium heat, and cook for five minutes. Cut the bacon into lardons and add to the pan along with the bay leaf and caraway. Continue to cook until the shallots are starting to colour, the caraway is toasted, and the bacon is a little crispy.
Add the chestnuts, turn up the heat a little, and cook until golden. Add a good splash of chicken stock and a good splash of white wine. Bring to a simmer, and reduce the liquid by two thirds.
Add the kale and parsley, and cook, stirring regularly, for a further couple of minutes until the kale is warmed through but still retains a bite. Add salt and pepper to taste.
If serving on its own, spoon onto plates and serve with bread, or pile on top of some toasted sourdough. Add a rasher of crispy bacon per person if you want.
This article first appeared on Locavore Magazine’s website.