Sweet chestnuts are early this year where I live.
There’s plenty of fat ones already underfoot, and more in the trees still to come, when next the rains fatten and winds help them fall to the ground.
Most of the other collectors I see out these days are squirrels, some crows and parakeets, and a few old human folk. Mainly they seem to be foreign.
It set me to wondering: have the young people of Britain forgotten the sweetness of edible chestnuts?
They were a staple of the hunter gatherers who first populated these islands, and they are much tastier than the acorns and beechnuts our ancestors are also said to have eaten. Roasted on an open fire or toasted under a grill, all chestnuts need in the way of preparation is a small stab or slice from a knife (to stop them exploding as they heat) then heating till they burn a little, some careful peeling, and then eat.
Yum! (Some like to dip them in a little salt).
So to collect chestnuts, you need:
Cloth or paper bag (keep them dry, or they do risk going mouldy)
Stout, hard soled footwear (to stamp on the fat prickly cases and get the good nuts out)
An eye for a good tree: the distinctive serrated long curved leaves, more pointed than those of horse chestnut (don’t eat conkers! They are not good. Though in Brasil I saw a few for sale in a chemist – as a treatment for piles). The sweet chestnut’s green nut cases are also spinier than those of the conker (never try to get them out by hand, you will get prickled) and the trunk of the tree is vertically ridged, often curving… maybe gnarly when older, always very beautiful...
A good harvesting tree, not already overrun with squirrels, may have a few nuts already visible on the ground, round and shiny brown amidst the grass and debris. The other nuts will be still in their cases. Stomp on fat, fresh green looking nutcases, and good nuts will emerge if they’re in there.
Don’t bother with any nuts that are:
at all dimpled (if they're not perfectly smooth, they have probably got a worm in)
and always leave a few behind, for the birds and squirrels.
Take the rest home, and store them in a big bowl so they stay dry. Compost any that go mouldy, show little holes and/or start putting out strange crumbly bits.
To cook and/or store sweet chestnuts, boil them quickly in water, this makes them easy to peel. You can then dry or freeze them, ready for stew, a Christmas meal with sprouts, a chestnut pie with mushroom and mustard and more (oh god it tastes so good, like England’s heart on your tastebuds).
Keep a few fat chestnuts back for planting, raise them to strong seedling if you can them plant them somewhere with rich soil and some moisture - not too much. The sweet chestnut is a tree that thrives in the Mediterranean and so they should last a while here, given climate change. Food for the children to come…
(After the great storm of 1987 took so many of our standards down, my local park consulted with neighbours about what trees to replant. A keen forager since childhood, I suggested sweet chestnuts. I am happy to say that this evening I've shared with family and friends some of the nuts provided by those young trees.)
And one more thing – each time you pick up a chestnut and put it in your bag, maybe give thanks to the tree for their fecund generosity... for turning earth and water and sunlight and air into food that we can roast and eat and share and enjoy for the winter.
After a while, you may notice how happy the tree is to be noticed, and thanked, and how proud they are of to offer a feast to share with appreciative souls like ourselves.
ps Lately I've been looking after a blind parrot (called Lorito) who was rescued as a lost and half starved fledgling. I noticed that each time he found there was food in front of his beak, he'd give a little 'peep' ... is it fantasy to think that he's grateful, too, for the feeding the universe gives him - in his case, through our hands?