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Sweet Chestnuts Castanea sativa

Autumn this year seems a little out of sorts though I know that when speaking of nature, things are always just the way they need to be. The nights are drawing in and staying longer, as expected, as are the morning mists so I’m not sure what it is that feels off. Perhaps I just need to spend more time outside instead of typing! Today, just like the nights, I have another long foraging post for you to enjoy - I know it took me a long time to write so hopefully you find it useful.


Sweet Chestnut is a hard wood that’s relatively rot resistant due to the high tannin content like Oak, it’s technically non-native to the UK but we won’t hold that against it ;)

To many Sweet Chestnuts are a familiar flavour of the winter holidays and can be an expensive indulgence yet they can be easily gathered in abundance in many public parks for free throughout October and November.

Once cooked the flesh of the nut has a crumbly starchy consistency lending itself well to both soup, stuffing, and cake recipes. It can even be made into a mealy flour with the aid of a dehydrator and grinder/blender. Handling warm roasted Chestnuts is a great way to bring some life back into cold fingers and they make a fantastic seasonal nibble at a bonfire party, or their wrinkly brain-like appearance could please even the most ghoulish of guests for Halloween...


How we benefit:

According to Chestnuts are probably not what we would call a nutrition powerhouse, but they are still pretty high in manganese, vitamin C, vitamin B6 and copper. They are in fact the only nuts that contain appreciable levels of vitamin C.”

If you’re trying to stay away from starch and carbs then they’re probably not for you, but if you feel you have the balance right then tuck in and reap the nutritious benefits!

Did I mention that they’re FREE?


What does the Sweet Chestnut tree look like?

Our local gathering patch and host of my childhood memories is Ampthill Park in Bedfordshire, a fantastic broadleaved mix of mostly massive Beech, Oak, Lime, Birch and Chestnut planted as far back as the 15-1600’s.

The best way to find a sweet chestnut tree is to look at the ground, which if one is near will likely be covered in remnants of the spiky protective nut capsules in varying shades of green (freshly fallen) and brown (older husks). It’s not a woodland to venture into barefoot or in sandals!

The leaves are large and long, a pointy oval as long as your hand (or more, I have small hands!) and quite deeply serrated along its edges.

Sweet Chestnut trees grow large, up to 35m (115 ft), but even smallish saplings seem to be productive. The bark of an old tree is deeply textured into fissures often forming an obvious twist around the trunk.


Not to be confused with Horse Chestnuts, otherwise known as Conkers. Why? Belly ache is why. In case you make a mistake, they’re not deadly poisonous but really aren’t recommended! The protective nut capsules of the Horse Chestnut are not as viciously spiny as the Sweet Chestnuts’, they do have spines but are better described as pointy nubs on an otherwise bald green shell. Although the nuts might look similar, the leaves of the Horse Chestnut are very different being ‘palmate’ or shaped like a hand instead of the single pointy leaves of the Sweet.


If you want to know more, the Woodland Trust has some good info on the species and take good care of plenty of woodland you can visit for a foray.




A set of tough leather gloves come in very useful as the spines really do hurt! Anyone lucky enough to have handled a Hedgehog will know just how painfully spiky they are and the Sweet Chestnut boasts equally good protection. Don’t say I didn’t warn you, but a big bag of fresh chestnuts is worth a few jabs I promise!

The husks open when they are ready (and clearly don’t wish to be hurried along!) though you can help pop them out with some careful foot placement, combined with a rocking or twisting action against a solid root or stone. A walking stick/hiking pole helps to dislodge the shiny red-brown jewels at a distance to where you can gather them safely from the forest floor.

Go for the larger fat nuts over the thinner ones with wrinkles as there’s unlikely to be much inside other than mould, not that you probably need to be told that - any group forage I’ve ever been on quickly becomes a competition as to who can find the biggest one! Avoid nuts with a hole present, no matter how small, as it will likely contain a worm :/


IMPORTANT TIP! It’s wise to keep an ear open to the sound of ‘crashing through leaves’ above for the next falling ball of spines – perhaps the traditional woolly hat can offer more than just protection from the cold Autumn air!




Chestnuts must be cooked before eating. As with veg, boiling will soften the flavour though gets the job done quickly and easily; roasting brings out the full nuttier notes of flavour but takes more care.

Chestnuts are enjoyable just as they are, perhaps with a light sprinkling of salt (move over pistachios and popcorn!), but if you’re lucky enough to have a lot in your area and want to take things a step further keep on reading below for some lovely recipes using gathered chestnuts...


To boil:

If you have a lot of chestnuts to prepare, pop on some music or settle down in front of the TV or a nice view with a plate or tray on your lap, knife in hand, and a saucepan next to you to drop them into. Once they’re cooked, settle down once more for the shelling process…


1. With a sharp knife, cut a cross into the tough skin of the chestnuts at the pointy end, or a slit all the way across the side. This will stop them from exploding in your kitchen during cooking!

Take care not to slip and cut yourself as they can be a tad fiddly and the skin tends to give way suddenly, but then my knife is in dangerously dire need of sharpening.

2. Cover with water and bring to the boil, simmer for just a few mins until tender. They really don’t need much time, give one a nibble for testing purposes if you’re unsure.

3. Using the cross cuts, peel off the tough shell and as much as you can of the thin and slightly furry under-skin (the tan) as it can be bitter - a little left on is OK depending on your final use and preferences I suppose, I ate a little to test and it tasted fine to me.



TIP! Keep the cooked chestnuts warm during the shelling process otherwise the skin sticks back on to the starchy nut as they cool, meaning you’ll have a tough time of picking it off. Leave them in the water and fish out just a few at a time or pre-warm the plate/tray/bowl you’ll be working from.



To roast:

1. Cut a cross or slit into the skins as per step one of boiling above.

2. Arrange on a baking tray in one even layer (don’t pack them too tightly together) and roast in a moderately hot oven for approx 30 mins or until the skins split open where you cut them.

3. Allow the skins to cool slightly before handling but again don’t wait too long! Shake a little salt over the cooked chestnuts if liked and keep warm (them and yourselves) whilst you peel and chow down on your tasty free haul.



Sausage & Chestnut Stuffing recipe from


Serves 3-6

100g quality sausage meat

100g cooked chestnuts (I boiled mine)

2 shallots / 1 small onion

75g fresh breadcrumbs (use less dried)

1 ½ tbsp chopped fresh sage leaves

1 egg, beaten

salt & pepper


1. Remove the sausage meat from the skins and add to a bowl. Finely chop the onion/shallots and the chestnuts and add to the bowl along with the rest of the ingredients listed above.

2. Season well and thoroughly stir until everything is well distributed throughout the mixture.

3. Roll into balls / pack flat into a baking dish & roast for approx 30-40 mins until lightly browned, or alternatively stuff into a bird for roasting.

Note: stuffing a bird will increase the cooking time so take care to take into account the extra weight and density, stuffing balls should be roughly walnut sized to cook through to the middle properly within the 30 mins.





You might have noticed that I decided to chop up some smoked streaky bacon to add in since, well, in my opinion bacon makes everything better! (Then I got carried away and decided to lay a bit more on top as well!) Think pigs-in-blanket mixed up with the yummiest stuffing… :)

I figure this is a good small-batch recipe that could be easily doubled if you’re catering for more but perfect for our usual small roast for two or three if you want 2 stuffing balls each. That’s probably us being greedy but then I REALLY like stuffing! Save any leftovers for making deliciously posh sandwiches for lunch the next day that will be ten times better than anything pre-packaged, fabulously festive and sure to draw an envious eye at the office.

I’m sure that Chestnuts will make good dumplings so will give that a go with the next batch and update this page. If you decide to experiment, don’t forget to come back and let us know how you get on – for better or worse we’d love to hear your results!


Other Chestnut recipes from around the web:


Italian Sausage & Chestnut pasta – BBC Good Food


Chestnut & Sage Soup – River Cottage


Chocolate Chestnut Brownies (2 recipes)

- Janes Healthy Kitchen

- The Guardian


Do you like chestnuts? Will you be trying them now that you’ve read about them? Let us know your thoughts and any tips of your own in the comments below.

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Sarah is an artist and writer with a lifetime interest in camping and survival techniques.

Living the #vanlife since before it was a hashtag and touring on two wheels with her husband Ryan, they have a wealth of camping and motorcycling knowledge to share, and know a thing or two about packing light! read more

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