I had a strange conversation with a woman in the toilets in my local supermarket the other day – as you do… She came in and started drying her hands under the electric dryer, which I thought was a bit odd until I remembered it had been raining. But I was even more surprised when she started chatting to me out of the blue.
“There’s loads of chestnuts out there in the car park,” she said. “I’ve been out there collecting them up, which is why my hands are wet.” I asked her if she was entering a conkers contest but she told me that they were actually sweet chestnuts and she was planning to take them home and grill them. “Do you know how to do that?” she asked me, probably expecting me – as another supermarket shopper – to say no.
To be honest, foraging had been on my mind lately anyway – DJ had mumbled something about looking for mushrooms the other day – but I’d forgotten all about sweet chestnuts. A couple of years ago DJ and I collected a number of them and cooked them at home, experimenting with boiling and roasting them. So the other day, inspired by this mysterious lady, I found myself heading to our local woods where there are lots of sweet chestnut trees. I went armed with a plastic bag but quickly wished I’d remembered to take some gardening gloves along. Sweet chestnut pods are extremely prickly and it can be quite painful to retrieve the nuts from them. But eventually I devised a foolproof technique to dig them out using my foot and a stick I found.
Sometimes I come over a bit guilty when I go foraging locally – especially in places like this. It easy to feel like you’re stealing food from wild animals and birds, and usually I’m anxious to ensure that I only take a few berries or nuts from each tree or bush and leave plenty behind for the wildlife – but not this time. The mysterious lady I’d met in the supermarket was spot on. The abundance of sweet chestnuts was breath-taking. Our woods are full of sweet chestnut trees but after only collecting from windfalls around three trees, and still leaving plenty behind for the squirrels, my bag was bursting with the things. I was like a greedy kid in a sweetshop.
Now that I’ve got them home, I plan to roast some as well as blanching and freezing another batch to make stuffing with later, perhaps around Christmas time. But surely there’s more to just roasting and eating them which, while nice, is a bit boring? Luckily one of my new foodie friends on Twitter, @essexgourmet, has sent me some great recipes – one for a beef, wine and chestnut stew, another for chestnut biscotti and this one for chestnut and chorizo soup. How’s that for something different? I can’t wait to try them out.
Do you forage for food in your local area? What are your favourite wild foods and how do you prepare them? Leave a message and let me know.
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