Foraging is a bit like surfing! Ok, so I am not having to bunk off work at a moment’s notice, then drive 4 hours to the coast mid-week to catch some awesome Atlantic swell.
But I can walk for miles in the woods and fields trying to find a certain ingredient without luck. Or I might wait for weeks for a good period of rain to bring up the mushrooms. Foraging, like surfing, can take a whole load of commitment and waiting.
Chestnuts in autumn
Some things however are much less trouble to get your hands on. The mighty sweet chestnut is one such prize. As the October winds start to blow through, they are dropping from the trees in their millions.
Sweet chestnuts originated in Greece and were brought to our shores by the Romans. This tasty treat is identifiable by its green hedgehog jacket with many more spikes than the inedible Horse Chestnut (conker). You may want to wear gloves such as gardening gloves for picking them up and removing their spiky jackets.
Unlike most nuts, sweet chestnuts are high in carbohydrate rather than protein, but contain no gluten. As a result, their flour is a great option for a gluten-free diet.
Finding these beauties is not hard. Find a sweet chestnut tree, battle with the squirrels, pick up nuts, take home. Easy!
What to do when you get them home
At home things need a little more work. Put the sweet chestnuts (free of their green spiky jackets) into a bowl and cover with boiling water for a few minutes. This will soften the skins and make peeling a little easier.
Once peeled, they are ready to use.
My favourite sweet chestnut recipe is below. It is a wonderful seasonal soup using the first of the season’s parsnips, your foraged sweet chestnuts, and a bottle of “Over the hill” Dark Mild from the Hillside Brewery.
Parsnip, chestnut and ale soup
100 g butter
600 g parsnips, peeled and chopped smallish
1 small leek, trimmed and chopped
2 sticks of celery
175m “over the hill” ale, or otherwise maybe “old speckled hen”
200 g peeled sweet chestnuts
1.5 l vegetable or chicken stock
4 sprigs fresh thyme
300ml double cream
1. Melt half of the butter in a heavy-based saucepan. Add the parsnips, leeks, celery and thyme, cook gently without colouring until the parsnips are soft.
2. Add the ale and sweet chestnuts. Simmer and reduce gently for a further 10 minutes or so. Season with salt and pepper.
3. Add the stock and bring to the boil, then simmer for 5-6 minutes.
4. Remove the pan from the heat. Remove any thyme stalks. Using a stick blender blend the soup until smooth. Pass the soup through a fine sieve and set aside.
5. When ready to serve, heat the soup gently, but DO NOT allow to boil. Pour into bowls and garnish with a swirl of cream, black pepper and thyme.