Not that old Chestnut……? Part One

Well, no.  But a new one?  What about a  Sweet Chestnut Tree!

I’m excited.  The dreams of an orchard are about to become a reality! OK – I admit it’s only in a small way at the moment, but you have to start somewhere. We’ve cleared a lot of debris and dead plants away from the far end of the garden, and next year we still have quite a few branches to thin out, to allow the sun to filter through from all angles.  But now’s the time to order and plant most fruit and nut trees, to get them in the ground in November.

Trying to be a better gardener, I decided to dig into research about Sweet Chestnut Trees, and have found out the history, the choices of tree, the best condition for growth of the tree and what to do with the nuts when harvested plus recipes.  So much information. Therefore I will split this into two blogs, one after the other, so keep reading. Castanea-sativa - Sweet Chestnut Tree (courtesy of Deepdale Trees UK)
Castanea-sativa – Sweet Chestnut Tree
(courtesy of Deepdale Trees UK)

I have always wanted a Sweet Chestnut Tree. Unfortunately they can grow quite big, and the garden I recently left in Hessle was not big enough – I think our neighbours would have objected to being put in the shade.  But our Hornsea garden – now that’s another story!  So imagine my pleasure at being given some gift vouchers for my birthday from my sister from a reputable fruit and nut tree specialist. Ripe sweet Chestnuts (courtesy of Deepdale Trees UK)
Ripe sweet Chestnuts
(courtesy of Deepdale Trees UK)

Holidaying in Italy a few years ago, I came to love the ceiling of the ancient farmhouse we always rented with friends near Lucca, in Tuscany.  The big, cosy living room had been the ancient barn.  In years gone past this storage space had probably been full with hay and straw for the animals.  This welcoming room had a very high ceiling lined with the warm golden-red planks of the Sweet Chestnut tree.  I used to flop on the squashy settee and just gaze at the ceiling – at the warmth it gave out to the room below.

Sweet Chestnuts, the fruits, in Italian, are called La Castagna and the Sweet Chestnut Tree is Castagno comune or Castagno dolce, which are lovely words when said in an Italian accent.

So …… what on earth do I know about Sweet Chestnut Trees.  Well, apparently the original ones were planted in this country by the Romans when they made their invasive excursions into Britain from approximately 55 BC, 54 BC and then the bigger invasion one hundred years later.  These trees grew in warmer countries than Britain, so presumably they kept their fingers crossed for a successful harvest in this land of mists and fogs.  But the reason for planting Sweet Chestnut Trees was that the fruits were a staple food – Chestnut flour (farina di castagne), made with dried chestnuts, when ground down and, mixed with various ingredients such as currants/sultanas and pine nuts, could become a sort of cake/bread that the soldiers could eat on the march. By removing the outer hard skin, the nuts could be boiled in water to soften (and herbs were added), the soft skin was removed and they could be eaten as a snack, or mashed to make gnocchi or even sweetened to make desserts.

Therefore the expert strategists for the Roman army decided that it would be a good idea to plant forests of Sweet Chestnut Trees  in Britain, (Tuscan forests are still known as Castagneti in Italian), to use not only for the food but also because the wood was strong, full of tannin, and useful for building fences (or in their case, presumably, stockades) for keeping their animals inside and the ‘barbarians’ outside.  The Roman forays into the country in the early days were mainly in the south of Britain.  What we now know as Kent, Hampshire and the South Coast, Dorset and gradually inland.  There are still ancient pockets of Sweet Chestnut Trees in those areas, probably the great-granchildren trees from the original Roman plantings.



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