Two species of chestnuts are common in the UK. Sweet chestnuts are considered ‘honorary natives’, according to the Woodland Trust, since they’ve been here over 2000 years. Probably longer than most of my ancestors, so I think native seems a fair description. The Romans favoured chestnuts for the nutritious seed, of which more later. But it’s their ‘secondary’ use that I’ve noticed this year, finding huge blocks of woodland in Kent especially dominated by young coppiced chestnuts – an almost concrete-tough hardwood that sports almost unnaturally smooth, grey-brown bark when young.
Horse chestnuts followed just a few hundred years ago and swiftly became the tree of choice for grand, ornamental plantings. It’s easy to see why. A mature chestnut is a big, imposing, stolid organism, densely packed with long, pointed leaves. Their bulk offers both shade and, when planted in city parks, a visual counterweight to the otherwise complete dominance of manmade structures. Despite the much more recent establishment of horse chestnuts, these striking examples in Knole Park, Sevenoaks (pictured above), planted amongst the oaks, don’t seem to have harmed the park’s mix of birds. A flame-bright redstart was singing from the same line of trees when I walked beneath them on a warm afternoon in May – not a common species in Kent.
Both species’ seeds – nuts – are useful in one way or another. Horse chestnuts bear the familiar conker, playground autumn weapon of choice and legendary totem of the ‘elf an’ safety gone mad’ brigade. The sweet chestnut is a distinctly more palatable nut. One autumn we gathered quite a bagful of sweet chestnuts from Windsor Great Park, which, as the name suggests, is, like Knole, a grand affair designed and planted for the pleasure of society’s elite. (I suppose technically they were the Queen’s nuts, as it were, but I don’t think she could have eaten them all.) We stored them in a paper bag in the larder, and promptly forgot about them for a week or so, having little time for laborious nut peeling.
I was only prompted into finally using them up when I found a small, cream-coloured larva inching across the linoleum of the kitchen floor. Turns out there is such a thing as a chestnut weevil! Even after winkling out any visible weevils and trying to ignore the tiny holes in many others, I can’t say the resulting chestnut puree was all that successful – too stiff, which meant air holes in the jars, which led to mould developing on any exposed surface. But I can recommend chocolate chestnut brownies, the de-weeviled kind at least. The roasted-on-an-open-fire version probably don’t cause as much trouble either, but perhaps next time we’ll stick to foraging for hazelnuts – don’t tell me, there’s probably a hazel weevil lurking somewhere in the countryside too….