Whilst staying with my sister in Sussex a few weeks ago, we went out for several walks and on one of these I spotted a chestnut tree. To be more accurate, I spotted chestnuts on the ground.
I used to live in a house that had a chestnut tree in the garden. Every autumn I'd get plenty of these shells, but much injury to fingers later, there were usually only a few that actually had full-sized nuts in. This Sussex tree, on the other hand...
... contained chestnuts in almost every shell. I have read that chestnut trees need others nearby to fertilize them, which might have been the problem with the one in my garden. This one presumably had some friends about the place somewhere.
I should probably point out the difference between sweet chestnuts, which are what I'm talking about here, and horse chestnuts, otherwise known as conkers. The nuts look fairly similar, though conkers tend to be bigger and rounder, but the shells are quite easy to distinguish - the sweet chestnuts have longer, more densely packed spikes on them. Horse chestnuts are not good to eat, due to the saponins they contain, and probably not even very good for horses in large quantities. Sweet chestnuts, on the other hand, are absolutely delicious!
The traditional way of preparing chestnuts is to roast them on an open fire, but having gathered a fairly large quantity, I decided to try something different. Following the River Cottage Hedgerow Handbook, I made chestnut flour. I say,
Following - it was a bit approximate, partly due to a delivery of firewood that arrived and needed stacking in the middle of the process.
I boiled the nuts for, um, some time, then left them in the hot water for quite a while longer, so they were well and truly cooked (and cold) by the time I go to the next bit. It wasn't so much a matter of peeling them, as cutting the skins and squeezing out the soft innards. This was pretty effective, combined with scraping out the last bits with a small knife. That gave me a heap of chestnut mush, which I mashed up a bit more with a fork, then spread out on a baking tray and put in the oven on very low to dry out, taking it out at intervals to stir and mash it a bit more. After a few hours it was properly dry and, while not exactly flour, could reasonably be described as chestnut meal.
The dried meal took up a tiny fraction of the space the original nuts had occupied and I stored it in a jam jar. When I came to use it, I ground it in a pestle and mortar to make it finer, but there were some nutty bits that were too hard for me, so they remained. My first recipe also came from the River Cottage book, though I did modify it (don't I always?) so as to stretch the chestnut flour out a bit. The recipe was chestnut pancakes, which I decided called for rosehip syrup, so I tried making some for the first time (rosehip blog post edited to include syrup), which was a great success. My modification was to replace half of the chestnut flour with ordinary white wheat flour, which I thought would be better for holding the pancakes together, as well as not using up so much of the chestnut flour.
The pancakes were nice, though the first one I made was rather heavy. I added a little more water to the mix and the second one was better. I'm not sure this is the best use of my precious chestnut flour, though. I prefer...
2 oz chestnut flour soaked in
2 tablespoonfuls of milk (or it might have been more than that)
6 oz white flour
3 oz butter
3 oz sugar - I think I used caster, but I'm sure granulated would do just as well.
Yolk of one egg
I don't think I used any baking powder - I can't remember for sure
Edit: I forgot the egg yolk when I wrote this - I knew there were something I'd used to stick it together, and I didn't think it was milk. Recipe now amended.
Mix together the flour and sugar, then rub in the butter and finally mix in the egg yolk and soaked chestnut flour (it doesn't take very long to absorb the liquid, and it increases in size quite a lot when it does). Press it all together, roll out and cut, then bake at gas mark 4 for... I can't remember... 20 minutes? When they smell cooked, take them out of the oven!
These biscuits are really good! You don't have to dry the flour and rehydrate, that was just for storage, you could use fresh, cooked chestnuts. I wish I had more - I only have about a teaspoonful of flour left. I'll have to think of a suitably worthy use for it.
Another edit: These biscuits, topped with mascarpone cheese and pickled samphire, are sublime. Sadly they're all gone now, and I used the last of the flour in porridge, which was nice, though there wasn't really enough of it to make a big impact on the flavour.
This did prompt me to buy three baby chestnut trees for my garden, which I've been meaning to do for ages. Two are now planted and the third is in a pot waiting for its spot to be cleared of leylandii. Some time in the future, I'll have my own supply of chestnuts.
Also harvesting this week
Leek (those three all went into one meal - cooked up with pork stock and served with a baked potato - I'm not harvesting much at the moment, am I?)
Pickled samphire (on pizza and ommelette - good in both)
Sloe and apple 'plum sauce' (a bit left over that went in sauce for pork)
Blackcurrant wine (this year's. It's a bit rough as yet - probably needs to mature a bit longer)
Fizzy blackberry wine (this one was better younger, when it was still sweet and fruity)
Bay herb ale
Dandelion flower tea
Dandelion root coffee (but only because we'd run out of tea. I'm not really much of a coffee drinker)
Foraged food challenge summary page here.