Will's Wild Food Diary

 Wild food diary

Fresh, organic and free! Of all things bushcrafty, nothing gets me more excited than a foraging adventure.

From time to time, I update this page with a different wild food that is in season –  gradually building up a seasonal diary of some of the foraging delights available to us.

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Disclaimer: there's lots of good wild stuff to eat, and much of it is fairly easy to identify. Unfortunately, there are also some plants and fungi that can make you seriously ill or worse. This diary is a brief overview intended to inspire and not a substitute for an in-depth field guide and/or skilled teacher. I will endeavour to point out any obvious poisionous look alikes, but ultimately foraging is the individual's responsibility. Unless you are 100 per cent confident you know what something is, leave it alone! Also, please be aware that, as with any food, different people can have different reactions. It is wise to try just a small amount first.

That old chestnut

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‘Are you the man who eats weird stuff?’ Was how one young lady greeted me prior to a wild-chestnut3food walk a few years ago.

In truth, I rather enjoyed the dubious status, but it did highlight one common misconception: that, well, foraging involves eating weird stuff.

This can be true at times, but there are plenty of wild foods out there that are also commonly found on shop shelves. The sweet chestnut, of course, is one of them.

Right on the edge of its growing range in the UK, the sweet chestnut tree (Castanea Sativa) is generally happier and more productive in Southern Europe, where the summers are long and hot. However, if we get a good summer here, like the one just gone, then it’s still worth a scout around the forest floor from around late September into early November.

It’s a Christmas song cliché, but nothing really beats roasting them around a fire with a few friends. They can be roasted on any flat kind of skillet or pan, or wait until the flames have died down, rake a few embers to one side, and place the chestnuts directly on them. Around eight minutes should be enough with either method. Put a small slit in the skins beforehand – failure to do so will cause exploding pieces of nut. A painful situation indeed.

If you’re not lucky enough to find chestnut4yourself around a campfire, the oven can also be used – around 15 minutes at 200 degrees celcius should do it. We also like to chop them up and add them to a stir fry. 

Foraging considerations

It’s best to look for mature trees in the open or on the south-facing edges of woodland where there is plenty of sun. Chestnut trees can grow into ancient giants over 35 metres high and 2 metres wide. Noticeable features include, on the older specimens, deeply grooved trunks that can take on a spiral shape with time.

chestnutLook for the spikey cases on the ground, or hanging in the tree if it is earlier in the season. The only conceivable thing the sweet chestnut could be confused for is the distantly related but poisonous horse chestnut. The best thing is to check the actual case that contains the nut. The sweet chestnut has fine spikes very close together, a bit like a hedgehog, while the horse chestnut has thick spikes much further apart.

If still in doubt, you can check the leaves. Sweet chestnut has single-pointed leaves, known as lanceolate after it’s lance or spear type shape. While horse chesnut has rounded palmately-compound leaves – in other words, one leaf is comprised of around half a dozen other leaves in a circle, a bit like the palm of the hand with fingers coming off of it.

chestnut2Often the nuts will be sitting in the case and will need a little pressure from your foot or a
walking stick to break open. There may well be one or two shrivelled nuts that can’t be used, then one decent one if you’re lucky.

Finally, if the first few trees aren’t really producing, don’t give up. It’s not uncommon to find that one tree can struggle one year while it’s relative a little way down the path can be having a really productive year. The next year it could be the other way around.

* Sweet chestnut is often believed to have been introduced by the Romans. It’s a a nice story, but it is now considered to be more recent than this: https://www.archaeology.co.uk/articles/that-old-chestnut-how-sweet-chestnuts-came-to-britain.htm

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