We might complain about freezing winter temperatures, but there's no better time to enjoy piping hot, freshly roasted chestnuts. Not to be confused with inedible horse chestnuts, or conkers, the chestnuts we roast, put in stuffing and use for baking grow on sweet chestnut trees (Castanea sativa). Trees grow in the wild in Britain and are also cultivated in gardens and orchards. They grow more than 12 metres (40 feet) tall and bear 15 cm (6 inch) yellow catkins in spring, followed by chestnuts in autumn. Chestnuts deteriorate over time if stored uncooked.
Harvest sweet chestnuts as the trees begin to lose their leaves. Nuts rot quickly on damp ground, so pick them up as soon as you see them and continue to harvest daily or as often as possible. Wear gloves or take care when picking up the spiky shells. Use a rake or stick to sweep away fallen leaves and find hidden nuts.
Remove chestnuts from their shells and discard any with broken skins. Store chestnuts in string bags in an cool, dry place for two days before cooking. This helps sweeten them. Store raw chestnuts longer by leaving them in bags and checking daily for signs of mould, or cook chestnuts to eat immediately or to freeze for later use.
Prepare chestnuts for eating by roasting them in the oven. Cut a nick in the bottom of each nut with a sharp knife to make them easier to peel when cooked. Put chestnuts on a baking tray in the oven for 15 to 25 minutes at 200 degrees Centigrade (400 degrees Fahrenheit or Gas Mark 6). Remove them from the oven and allow to cool a little before peeling while hot.
Boil and peel chestnuts before freezing or using them in cooking. Cut a nick in the bottom of each nut, then put them in a saucepan of boiling water and cook for 15 minutes. Remove from the water and soak in cold water for 3 minutes before peeling while still hot. Take off the hard outer shell and the soft, inner skin. Chestnuts are easier to peel while hot so if you have a lot to prepare work in batches, peeling one batch while the next is boiling.
Freeze chestnuts when cold, in freezer bags or containers suitable for freezers, or use them in cooking or baking. Chop them and add to stuffing for meat dishes, puree them and add to sauces, soups or cake mixes, or sweeten the puree and use as a filling in desserts.
You can also store raw chestnuts in in a sealed container in the fridge. Chestnuts are edible raw, but taste better when cooked. Cooked chestnuts can be ground into flour and used as an additional ingredient when making bread, batter, cakes and biscuits. Sweet chestnut tree cultivars suitable for growing in gardens include Regal, Marigoule and Marron de Lyon.
Don't allow children to peel hot chestnuts and take care when peeling them yourself.