Sweet, sweet chestnuts

Have you ever foraged for sweet chestnuts? For me they are deeply associated with memories of my Dad. My Grandparents lived in a house on the Broadmoor estate (they were both nurses in the secure hospital) and right behind it was a little area of woodland where lots of sweet chestnut trees grew amongst the pines. I loved going into the woods with my Dad. It seems to me that it was something that we did together, without my Mum, a bit like sledging. Dad loved to tell me all about his boyhood, playing in those woods. I envied him that freedom even thirty years ago. I thought it must have been so exciting to escape into your own woodland playground with your friends to build dens and play hide and seek.

I always felt a frisson of fear in those woods too. They were not far from the forbidding walls of the Victorian hospital which housed some of the most notorious criminals of the last few decades. I knew very well that Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper was in there and, despite my youth, I had a fair idea of what he had done. Occasional thoughts used to flit through my brain along the lines of “What if someone escapes while we are out in these woods”? I must have voiced these concerns to my Dad because I remember him reassuring me that if anyone escaped, they would want to get as far away as possible. I wasn’t so sure. After all, weren’t the inmates locked up because they were mad?

We visited my Grandparents in the October holidays of 1982. I would have been seven years old. I know this because we gathered and ate a lot of sweet chestnuts that year. The following spring, my baby brother arrived with a head of dark brown hair. Clearly (according to my Grandparents) the result of all the chestnuts my Mum ate. I seem to remember Grandad having a sack full of them and every evening some more would be cooked. In fact, I think that sack of chestnuts was still in evidence when we returned at Christmas.

I can’t remember exactly how Grandad cooked them but I think they might have been done in the oven. Actually, it’s probably much more likely that my Grandma cooked them. I seem to remember that they eventually took to doing them in the microwave, piercing the tough shells and putting them in a covered bowl with a small amount of water. I loved them. There’s nothing nicer than fresh, hot  chestnuts, especially if you don’t have to peel them.

However, the best way to enjoy them is with your Dad, in the woods, over an open fire. Dad and I shared a slight pyromaniac tendency over the years and I think my first taste of it was during that October holiday. Dad must have built a little fireplace from stones and found an old upturned paint tin lid (there was a bit of a tendency to dump rubbish around the woods from time to time). He had no problem lighting the fire because in those days he was still a smoker so he had matches to hand. I felt like I had escaped into some sort of adventure story and we were surviving on our foraging skills. I also knew that Dad trusted me around the fire and that made me feel extremely grown up.

We never found any sweet chestnut trees in Teesside. I have a theory about this and it is all to do with Romans. They were the ones who introduced the sweet chestnut to Britain. A Romans road existed through the area that is now near Crowthorne, where Dad grew up, so perhaps that explains why they were so common there. Dad did start to grow a sapling from a nut he brought home once. Mum tells me she’s still got it in a pot in the garden but I haven’t spotted it for a while. The nearest Dad and I got to chestnuts in later years was peeling them for Christmas stuffing.

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Fast forward thirty-one years and my children are visiting their paternal grandparents during October half-term. My eldest is just a little bit older than I was when I went chestnut foraging with my Dad. We decided to have a walk up Penrith Beacon, a hill on the edge of town.

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We hadn’t been on the path long before I spotted the distinctive leaves and spiky cases of sweet chestnuts littering the ground. I immediately sent The Husband back to the car for a bag so I could gather some.

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IMG_3790I was so excited to have found chestnuts. It wasn’t really about wanting to eat them (because I still haven’t – oops) it was purely about me recreating memories. Dad would have been as excited as me about finding them. We didn’t actually gather any until we were on our way back. It seemed silly to carry them up the Beacon and back again. The rest of our walk was lovely. The weather was mild and bright. The sun shone through the leaves and there were lots of other things to spot along the way.

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The view from the top wasn’t as fabulous as we might have hoped. Trees obscured the view in most directions making the beautiful guide to the fells and landmarks pretty much obsolete.

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We could see Penrith, and a few of the fells beyond, through one little gap in the trees.

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When we got to the bottom of the path everyone else went ahead while I gathered chestnuts. I made a few mistakes in my foraging. The best, ripest nuts are the ones in the cases that have just split open. I picked up quite a few cases that were still intact and the nuts inside them were disappointingly pale. Obviously it’s been too long since I foraged for chestnuts.

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Once I got them home I wasted no time in ‘de-shelling’ them. You really need a tough pair of gloves for this job if you don’t want to get spiked. Most of them had one decent sized nut and a couple of ‘runts’ that weren’t worth keeping.

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I took far too many photos. The variety in their ripeness and the fact that they popped out so easily when they were ready got me thinking about babies and due dates. But that is a whole other rant blog post. I’ll let you ponder on that one.

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IMG_3804So beautiful. I really must get around to actually eating them.

And what about my theory? It is well known that Romans lived around Penrith. There was a Roman road in the area that connected Penrith to Carlisle and Manchester. Teesside was also subject to Roman rule and there is plenty of evidence for Roman occupation but according to this:

‘The people living in the Teesside area during the Roman occupation were native Britons or ‘Celts’. Teesside probably saw no large-scale movements of population following the Roman invasion or any great influx of new immigrants. Indeed in many parts of Britain there is little evidence for the adoption of Roman culture or beliefs among the majority of the population.’

Is that why we don’t have chestnut trees in abundance here? Or is it just that we don’t have the right kind of soil? I don’t know but if anyone has an answer, I’d be pleased to hear it.

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