All about sweet chestnuts: selecting them, picking them and cooking them

Considered as an autumn fruit, the sweet chestnut rarely weighs more than 25 grams. Despite its small size and weight, it provides a lot of energy. There are lots of different varieties such as Marigoule, Bouche de Bétizac and Bouche Rouge. Sweet chestnuts, which are fruit trees, are sometimes called the "bread tree", since chestnuts used to be eaten as a meal by the more impoverished. Times have changed, since nowadays this fruit often appears on the table on special occasions.

 

What's the difference between a sweet chestnut and a chestnut or conker?

We often get sweet chestnuts confused with chestnuts. For example, we usually refer to chestnut purée, chestnut-stuffed turkey and roast chestnuts. But none of these are the conker-style chestnuts, they're all sweet chestnuts! Conkers can't be eaten, and while they look like sweet chestnuts, there are differences between them. Firstly, a sweet chestnut case has a lot more spikes than a conker case. Sweet chestnuts are also flatter than big, round conkers. Last but not least, there's usually just one fruit inside a conker case, whereas there are three in every sweet chestnut case.

So now you know how to tell the difference!

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When should you collect sweet chestnuts?

Chestnut trees flower in summer, mostly at the beginning of June up until the end of July. Then the sweet chestnuts fall, and that's when you can collect them. You shouldn't take chestnuts straight from the tree, you should wait till they're on the ground. You collect them in autumn, at the end of September to mid November. This is why sweet chestnuts are known as "autumn fruit", because you'll enjoy them with all your meals for the rest of the season and even in winter.

Don't forget to put on gloves to protect your hands, the cases are very spiky!

Where can you find sweet chestnuts?

Sweet chestnuts grow in rich, healthy soil without much lime. They don't like drought and they need light. This means, although you can find sweet chestnuts in the woods near you, they are most plentiful in the Ardèche, in the Cévennes, and also in Limousin or in Corsica.

And you can buy them of course!

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How to select sweet chestnuts

It's important to choose the right sweet chestnut when you're collecting them or buying them at the supermarket. Check they're glossy, not too damaged and that none have any holes. Once you're at home, put them in water to check that all your chestnuts are healthy and edible. The ones that bob back to the surface are probably empty or not edible.

How to cook sweet chestnuts

You should definitely try sweet chestnuts if you haven't already! In fact, this fruit contains lots of vitamins and carbohydrates and very little fat. They're very good for your health and give you lots of energy.

There are several ways to cook sweet chestnuts. If you want to boil them, you just need to make an incision in the lanula (the lightest bit) so the chestnuts don't explode, and then pop then in boiling water for about 10 minutes. Afterwards, you can just remove the shell and the thin peel.

You can also pop them in the microwave for around a minute. Make sure you don't leave them in for too long.

You can also roast sweet chestnuts in the oven, for which you'll still need to slit the lanula. Arrange them on a baking tray and roast them at 210°C for around 20 minutes.

If you've got an open fire or woodburner and a chestnut pan (with holes in), you can roast your sweet chestnuts on a wood fire. Slit the lanula, arrange the sweet chestnuts in the pan and roast them for 20 minutes.

You can also use sweet chestnuts in savoury or sweet dishes. Who doesn't like a lovely chestnut broth, chestnut pâté, chestnut purée or even an apple and chopped chestnut crumble?

Photos - Thierry Vallier

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