Filling those nut jars


This year has been a good year for fruits, nuts, and berries. Many trees have been heavily laden with nature’s gifts and at times it has been difficult to keep track and fully utilise the bounty.

Throughout October and early November, there is one harvest that has become simply unmissable in our house: Sweet Chestnuts! During those early winter months and over the festive season we have learned to look forward to these rich, tasty and filling fruits that can be so versatile in the kitchen.

One of the major issues that the forager faces when picking chestnuts, second only to getting past their significant defense of spines, is that of storage. Sweet chestnuts have a significant moisture content that can cause issues should you be looking to store them for a long period, as they will simply mildew and rot if placed in a basket inside the house.

The traditional approach to storing chestnuts throughout Europe for those communities that have heavily relied on them as a staple has been to drive off this moisture before storage. Throughout remote alpine areas, communities have often purpose-built structures on farms and small holdings to allow for the mass drying and storage of this bountiful harvest which they often had to heavily rely on to supplement rye and other grains throughout the hard winter months. Typically these structures have been in the form of wooden or stone drying sheds which allow for a small fire to burn in the centre with wooden drying racks above over which the chestnuts are spread.

If you wish to store your chestnuts whole then it is possible to extend their storage by keeping them in the fridge or similarly cool location, ideally below 4°C. It is important to keep them cool due to the high starch and moisture content, making them more like a potato than other tree nuts. If the fresh chestnuts are kept at a low temperature from within two days of picking they can be stored for up to two to three weeks and still roasted in the typical way. Alternatively, you can freeze whole or shelled chestnuts for up to a year which will preserve the fruit but can alter the taste and texture of the nut. There are also references to storing whole fresh chestnuts in cool, dry locations for some period as long as this is done quickly after picking. I am curious as to whether this will work, and have placed a few of our chestnuts in the pantry, in a way which I hope is similar to the traditional storage of carrots or apples, and will keep you updated.

Unfortunately what our new home has not come with is a purpose built drying shed for chestnuts, well I guess we can’t have it all, so we have had to dry them with alternative methods. The simplest way for us is to dry the chestnuts on the wood stove after they have been peeled and ground up to a course grit in a food processor. This allows for a much greater surface area of chestnut to be exposed to the heat and means they dry faster. It is important to remember that we are not trying to cook the chestnuts at this stage, only to dry them, so we are looking for a gentle heat where the drying trays are located. To achieve this we placed the trays onto a dutch oven lid on the top of the stove, resulting in an indirect heat transfer from the fire. This method takes between one to two days depending on the heat of your stove and how much you are in to tend it. If you are only going to have it on during the evenings then I suspect that you might be drying them for three or more days.
For those without a wood burning stove, or not wishing to fill their living room with trays of drying chestnuts, a fan oven on a very low setting for a good number of hours will work fine, as would a dehydrator for those who have one.

To test whether the chestnuts are sufficiently dried for storage I simply go by feel. If they are dry to the touch and crunchy, with the texture of fine gravel, then for me they are suitably dried. I would recommend that they are then stored in breathable containers such as heavy duty paper bags, simply to allow any remaining moisture to escape. For those using dehydrators you should be able to achieve the desired moisture content for long term storage, ………, in this case, the dried chestnuts can be stored in airtight containers for the medium term. Personally, if the grits or flour is going to be stored in a dry place at home I always think it best to use paper or something similar.

img_0011The laborious task of shelling chestnuts!

img_0013Once shelled the drying process begins

img_0008Once they have started drying grind up the nuts to speed the process

img_0015The finished article following a day’s drying on the stove

So I hope this relatively simple process has inspired a little late autumnal foraging, especially as the hedgerows are starting to look more bare. As with all wild foods the key challenge, and the one that I love, is to prolong its harvest and come up with various means of storing your hard work for the coming year. Hopefully, the Sweet Chestnut proves itself to be a worthwhile investment once collected, shelled, dried and stored. If nothing else they are a great accompaniment to the perfect Christmas dinner!

Happy foraging and remember not to leave the house without your gathering bags!






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