Stories from the Barn
A hive of activity in the Hampshire downlands
The Sweet Chestnut Tree.
Advent Day 19
The Sweet Chestnut tree is one of the most beautiful trees in our woodlands. It was introduced to Britain by the Romans and is native to Southern Europe. It now thrives in Britain on light non chalky soils which is why we don’t see them here on the Downs. Just up the road though on the Greensand, there the tree flourishes. In Kent it was planted on mass to provide the poles for growing hops on.
It is related to the beech tree and the oak tree and sometimes the Sweet Chestnut is called ‘Poor Mans Oak’ but this is a totally unfair description as the Sweet Chestnut produces lovely timber. When cut it looks like Oak but as it dries it is obviously different being lighter in colour. The tanins in the wood produce yellow and brown streaks that is not evident in Oak. It is more open grained but dense enough to make it very durable so it gets used outdoors for furniture, fencing and cladding.
A Sweet Chestnut woodland is usually a coppiced wood with standards
The chestnuts when coppiced is fantastic for a process called ‘riving’ which is when the wood is split by hand from the broadest end to the narrowest. Chestnut lends itself to this process because it is naturally inclined to split along the grain. It earned its place in native British woodlands because of this capability. The rived wood makes staves, battens, hurdles and so can be used across a wide range of everyday activities. When left un-coppiced the tree can grow very tall, up to 35m and live for as long as 700 years. A mature chestnut tree is a stunning thing. The heavy, long serrated leaves dip downwards. The bark spirals around the trunk and can make amazing patterns.
Gathering Sweet Chestnuts.
In Europe people forage for the nut of the Sweet Chestnut tree. It is a prized foraged nut for them and turns up in all dishes, made into a sauce, used for stuffings and sweet pastes. In Britain we don’t value them in the same way but maybe we should.
The nuts are easy to spot on the tree as they are encased in a very prickly shell, a cross between a hedgehog and a sea urchin. If you do go collecting them you will need to wear gloves! Each case contains between three or four nuts. The nuts to gather should be plump and firm and check them over for weevil holes. They do not store for long, a week or so at the most. If they are not going to be used straight away spread them out in a single layer to stop them going mouldy.
Our ancestors looked upon roasted chestnuts as a treat. The smell of a roasting chestnut on a cold Winter’s evening is difficult to resist. They enjoyed picking up a quick tasty snack on the street. Victorian Sweet Chestnut sellers roasted the nuts on the streets and placed them in a cone of paper. The hot chestnuts warmed both the hands and the stomachs providing a snack high in carbohydrates but low in protein and fat.