Tree of the month – Sweet Chestnut
Most commonly known for its edible nuts at Christmas, we don’t tend to use sweet chestnut timber in the UK, despite it being remarkably similar to oak. With chestnuts falling on the crisp autumn leaves as we speak, October is the perfect month to explore this fascinating tree in more detail…
It’s the season for soft sweaters, pumpkin spice and crisp air. The trees have changed into their golden autumn colours, dropping apples, acorns and chestnuts to the ground with soft thuds. Sweet chestnuts tend to fall from the tree during October, but timing is everything if you are hoping to go foraging for these healthy and tasty nuts – they can quickly become soft and waterlogged, and that’s if the squirrels don’t get to them first. Gather only the plump, firm, shiny-brown chestnuts and you’re in for a treat.
In Britain, our sweet chestnut trees tend to produce smaller nuts in comparison to their European counterparts, which is why we seem to eat less of them here. At this time of year, the sweet smell of roasting chestnuts is an everyday aroma found in streets across France, Spain and Italy. Luckily for us, if you find yourself returning home empty handed after a chestnut hunt then you can buy them in various forms, including sweetened or unsweetened chestnut purée; pre-cooked vacuum-packed chestnuts and preserved candied chestnuts (known as marron glacè).
Despite the traditional nostalgia we associate with the custom of roasting chestnuts, sweet chestnut trees are not native to Britain. It is believed that they were brought to the British Isles by the Romans, who’s armies were known to feast on the high-carbohydrate chestnuts as they were marching through their territories.
With a similarly high tannin content, sweet chestnut timber looks remarkably like oak, especially when freshly cut, but it is more lightweight and easier to work. The most effective way to differentiate between English oak and sweet chestnut timber is that oak does not have the flecks or silvery streaks in its inner growth rings. In Southern Europe, it’s a favoured joinery material over oak, because of its stability and mellow texture. Interestingly, it’s not as popular in Britain, where is has been coined the ‘poor man’s oak’ and is a relatively under-used material.
There are some areas in Britain, however, where sweet chestnut is grown and maintained for its timber and used as a traditional material. Particularly in Kent in the South of England, sweet chestnuts have been grown as coppices for generations, being recut on rotation every 10 years or so for poles which are used for fence posts, chestnut paling, firewood, and to support growing hops.
When a chestnut is young it has a straight grain, but this spirals in older trees and coppicing ensures that the they will continuously provide timber that we can make use of. Waterproof and durable, chestnut was also traditionally used as roof shingles as a natural building material in some areas as it fared particularly well in our damp weather conditions.
Famous for its estimated age, the ‘Tortworth chestnut’ is one of the oldest trees in the country and can be found by the village church surrounded by palings to stop people climbing on it. It is said to be 1,200 years old, starting from a chestnut around 800AD. The tree was described as a boundary tree of the manor during the reign of King John, which makes it at least 800 years old as a minimum. This ancient sweet chestnut tree is still growing, with green leaves sprouting from its large trunk each spring.
Are you a chestnut novice in the kitchen? Have a go at creating your own foraged feast with these wonderful chestnut recipes. As they are slightly poisonous, please be aware of the difference between horse chestnuts and sweet chestnuts.