Whenever we’ve got time, we love looking for wild food such as blackberries, sloes and rosehips. Chestnuts are one of our favourite harvests, as they’re versatile and last a long time once gathered. Don’t forget though, you’re looking for sweet chestnut trees rather than horse chestnuts – conkers aren’t edible!
Sweet chestnuts have a very spiky, prickly outer case, so a pair of gloves is a good addition to your foraging expedition. Discard the spiky cases and leave them behind, or you’ll fill your bag up very quickly. If you don’t have any trees near you, you can also buy chestnuts in supermarkets.
Here are a few of our favourite recipes to get you started.
Sometimes simple is best, and roasted chestnuts fill the house with a wonderful aroma as well as tasting delicious. Pre-heat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius, and prick each chestnut carefully with a fork or the point of a small knife. This is very important, as it stops them exploding in the oven (this may, ahem, have happened to us in the past. We’re not saying.). Place the chestnuts on a baking tray, and put them in the oven for 20 – 30 minutes until the skins are split open and the insides are tender. To eat, allow to cool slightly then remove the tough outer skin with a knife.
2. Chestnut pie
This gorgeous chestnut pie is festive and filling, and makes a great vegetarian alternative for Christmas dinner. If you can prepare the chestnuts in advance and freeze them, it’s very quick and easy to put together on the day. For four people, you’ll need about 300g of chestnuts, 300g of mushrooms, 200ml vegetable stock, 150ml red wine, two garlic cloves, two onions, some fresh thyme and some readymade puff pastry, 60g of butter, 60g of plain flour plus a little extra butter for frying.
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Boil the chestnuts for about ten minutes until soft, then peel them and set aside (this is the stage to freeze them if necessary). Meanwhile, chop the onions and fry in butter, then add the chopped mushrooms and garlic. Add the flour and butter and stir until the flour is absorbed into a thick paste. Add the wine and stock, bring to the boil and simmer until the sauce has thickened. Add the chestnuts and thyme, and transfer into an overproof dish. Roll over the pastry topping, and bake for 25 – 30 minutes until the pastry is pale golden.
3. Sweet chestnut puree
Also known as crème de marrons, chestnut puree can be made in sweetened or unsweetened versions. The unsweetened version is used in soups and stuffing, while the sweetened version is useful for desserts. You can use it to fill cakes or profiteroles, serve with ice cream, layer up with chocolate mousse for a dinner party, or use it as an ingredient. Here’s our version:
You’ll need 800g of chestnuts, roasted and shelled; 200g brown sugar and one teaspoon of vanilla extract. Put all the ingredients in a saucepan, and bring it to the boil. Simmer for about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure the sugar isn’t burning. When the liquid has reduced by about a third, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla. Drain the chestnuts, reserving the syrup. Blend the chestnuts in a food processor until smooth, then carefully pour in enough syrup to reach the desired consistency, which should be quite thick. Allow to cool completely, then store in the fridge.
4. Chestnut stuffing
If you fancy making your own stuffing this year, this is a bit different. To make enough to stuff a large turkey, you’ll need:
175g butter; 500g breadcrumbs; two medium onions chopped into small pieces; two large Bramley cooking apples, peeled, cored and chopped; 200g chestnuts, boiled and peeled; 800ml vegetable stock, several sage leaves, chopped and three large eggs, beaten. Fry the onion in a little of the butter, then transfer it into a large bowl. Add the breadcrumbs, apples, sage, chestnuts and eggs. Add the stock slowly, until the mixture is just moist but not wet. Stuff the turkey. Any remaining stuffing can be packed into a buttered ovenproof dish, and baked alongside the turkey for about 25 to 30 minutes until golden and firm.
5. Chestnut soup
This is a lovely warming lunch for a cold day – in fact, it would make the perfect end to a morning of chestnut hunting. You’ll need two onions, chopped; a clove of garlic, crushed; a large potato, peeled and thinly sliced; 450g chestnuts, boiled and peeled; a litre of vegetable stock and 150ml crème fraiche. Fry the onions until softened, then add the garlic. Add the potato, stock and chestnuts, and bring to the boil. Simmer until the potato is tender, then blend in a food processor. Stir in the crème fraiche and adjust the seasoning if necessary. Serve with crusty bread.