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The Chestnut

The Chestnut

The Chestnut

1550 Sweet Chestnut
Rizzio's Chestnut
The Tortworth Chestnut
Bewdley Sweet Chestnut

Chestnut Blossom

Chestnut Blossom


Horse Chestnut tree

Horse Chestnut

The Horse Chestnut or the American Buckeye which belongs to the same genus (Family: Hippocastanaceae) is also known as the Bark Bongay or Conker Tree. The horse chestnuts comprise about 13 species in Southeastern Europe, Eastern Asia and North America. The tree is said to have originally come from Lydia, an ancient kingdom in Asia Minor. The best known of these in Western Europe is Aesculus hippocastanum, the Common Horse Chestnut, a native of the Greek / Albanian border region which was introduced into Western Europe in 1576 and to Britain in 1633. This explains why, as mentioned below, there is no Druidic or Wiccan lore relating to the tree.

It is related to the oak and can live for up to 500 years. The name "horse chestnut" arose because the Flemish ambassador to Turkey from 156 to 1562, a certain Ogier Chislain de Busteq, visiting the court of Suleyman the Magnificent, saw Turkish soldiers feeding the fruit to their horses. While the wood is not used much the tree is often grown for its ornamental worth.

Horse Chestnut nut & leaves
Sweet Chestnut tree

Sweet Chestnut

Castanea sativa, the Sweet Chestnut (Genus Castanea, family Fagaceae) is also known as the Spanish, Portuguese or European chestnut. It is a medium-sized to large deciduous tree and is a species of chestnut originally native to southeastern Europe and Asia Minor. It attains a height of 60 to 100 feet with a trunk often 20 feet in girth.

Sweet Chestnut nut & leaves
Sweet Chestnut tree

Chinese Chestnut

The Chinese Chestnut (Castanea mollissima) is a deciduous tree native to China and also to Taiwan and Korea and growing to sixty feet tall. It grows close to sea level in the north of its range, and at altitudes of up to 2,800 m in the south of the range. The species prefers full sun and acidic, loamy soil, and has a medium growth rate.

Sweet Chestnut nut & leaves


1550 Sweet Chestnut

Standing in the grounds of Castle Leod, Strathpeffer, this tree has the oldest recorded planting date in Scotland. It was planted by John Mackenzie (1480 to 1556). Interestingly, Alison was a MacKenzie before she married me, her father was called John ands so is one of her brothers. John MacKenzie was 9th. Chief of Kintail and a privy councillor to Mary Queen of Scots and to James V. This tree is massive - the trunk is twenty seven and a half feet in girth and the canopy rises to ninety seven feet. The fissured trunk displays a pronounced twist which is very characteristic of old sweet chestnuts. The angle of the spiral tends to increase as the tree gets older but strangely, the grain normally remains vertical.

This particular tree is in very good condition in spite of its age but unfortunately, a smaller second tree close by was lost in a gale in 1979.

There is evidence of a castle on this site from the times of Norse occupation, when the swamp-like, low lying strath of the River Peffery was a many years from having proper drainage to make agricultural pasture, and boats were able to sail from the nearby Dingwall (Norse, thing = parliament, Norse, vollr = field) to the castle, built on a man-made mound and possibly with a mooring and small dock.

The 1550 Tree

Rizzio's Chestnut

Rizzio's Chestnut

David Rizzio was the Italian secretary and close companion of Mary Queen of Scots. On one of her visits to Melville Castle he was reputed to have planted this tree by the banks of the North Esk river, as a token of his love for her. However, this display of love only angered her jealous second husband, Lord Darnley and Rizzio was murdered in front of her in the palace of Holyrood House in 1566. The tree survives him. The trunk is 25 feet in girth but like all old chestnuts it is not tall, 55 feet only, because the top growth dies back.

The Tortworth Chestnut

According to legend this sweet chestnut sprang from a nut planted in 800 AD in the reign of King Egbert. Written records of the tree go back to the twelfth century and it was supposed to have been a boundary marker during the reign of King Stephen, marking the edge of the Tortworth estate, by which time it was already known as the Great Chestnut of Tortworth. The tree was a landmark in the boundary records compiled in the reign of John. It stands in a field next to the village church. The village of Tortworth in Gloucestershire is reached from Junction 14 of the M5.

It is probably the most famous sweet chestnut in Britain. Because many of the branches of its huge twisted main trunk have rooted to become trees in their own right, it now looks like a small woodland.

In 1766 the girth was measured by the dendrologist Peter Collinson and stood at "52 feet around". According to Colinson it was then the largest tree in England but the advised paying heed to the old adage about the oak and the chestnut:

Three hundred years growing
Three hundred years standing
Three hundred years decaying

He added: "It countenances my conjecture, that this venerable chestnut is not much less than a thousand years old."

The Tortworth Chestnut

Prince Arthur's tree at Bewdley

Bewdley Sweet Chestnut

Kateshill House at Bewdley in Gloucestershire was once part of Tickenhall Manor, the home of Prince Arthur, Prince of Wales and son of Henry the seventh. The Sweet Chestnut at Bewdley covers an incredible quarter of an acre, with one branch reaching 77 feet. Tradition states that it was planted to commemorate the proxy wedding of Arthur to Catherine of Aragon (who later married his brother, Henry the eighth).

The Chestnut in Natural Healing

Horse Chestnut helps with various respiratory problems including loosening and expelling lung congestion. This alleviates bronchitis, respiratory catarrh and coughs. Culpeper recommends drying the kernels, grinding them to a powder and mixing with honey as a remedy for "coughs and the spitting of blood".

Horse Chestnut also improves the circulatory system by strengthening capillary walls and dilating blood vessels. This helps to relieve varicose veins, phlebitis, swollen ankles and local oedema. The herb is also said to reduce blood clots and hardening of the arteries. This may help to prevent strokes and heart attacks. Culpeper's comment on this is that, as the chestnut is ruled by Jupiter, "the fruit must needs breed good blood, and yield commendable nourishment to the body; yet, if eaten over-much, they make the blood thick, procure head-ache, and bind the body".

We give the usual caveat: don't take our word for it, we are not medically qualified. Consult a doctor.

The Chestnut in Folklore

There are no ancient British traditions associated with the horse chestnut. This is because the trees retreated south ahead of the last ice age. After the ice sheets melted, the trees found themselves stuck in a remote valley in Eastern Europe. While many tree seeds are carried on the wind or by birds, the large conkers could not distribute. It took them another ten thousand years to cross the mountain ridge! We have to move forward to the 1633 when the tree was re-introduced into Britain, to find traditions associated with these trees, and the best known is the childrens' game of conkers. This game started to be played in the 18th century.

To the ancient Greeks, the sweet chestnut was dedicated to Zeus and the name castanea comes from Castonis, a Town in Thessaly in Greece which cultivated the tree extensively. However, the Greek name was Sardis Glans, (sardis acorn). This name comes from the name of the capital of Lydia, now in Turkey, from where the trees originated. They were also called the "acorns of Zeus", as were walnuts.

There is an interesting annual festival in the village of Mourjou in the French département of Cantal. This is the hilly, wooded region known as the Châtaignerie (or 'chestnut grove') in the southern Massif Central. The two-day fair in October, for which planning starts eight months beforehand, is an exuberant mix of food, music, folklore, conservation and chestnuts, which attracts 20,000 visitors and most villagers take part. Tractors and forklifts loaded with giant cauldrons and sacks of apples rattle through the tiny Place de l'Eglise. Stalls and marquees go up outside the Mairie and line the roadside. Great bundles of leafy chestnut boughs are carted through the village to decorate the stands. This is the annual Foire de la Châtaigne, the chestnut festival,

A century ago when life was hard, sweet chestnuts were a local staple, ground into flour or fed to the pigs to add flavour to the pork. Nowadays, they are not relied on so heavily because the countryside has prospered. However, Auvergnats are proud of their rural traditions and the humble chestnut has not been forgotten.

This is a tremendous feat for the 360-odd inhabitants of what is hardly more than a hamlet strung out along a lane cresting a ridge. As Pascal Piganiol, the Mourjou-born journalist who came up with the idea 12 years ago, explains: "There is a great solidarity among the villagers. We all work together."


Cooking Sweet Chestnuts

Chestnuts are the least oily of all the nuts and the easiest to digest. They contain 15 per cent of sugar and a large proportion of starch. They can easily be preserved so as to be kept for years. Usually chestnuts roasted, boiled, or ground into a flour that is used to make bread, cakes, and cookies. Note that the horse chestnut is altogether different and its fruit is not edible. We don't recommend that you eat conkers. They are in fact, poisonous to humans in when consumed raw but have been used in the past to make soap, as they are rich in saponins. The flower buds have been used as a substitute for hops in brewing.

Chestnuts are enclosed in a prickly case and these usually contain three separate nuts which are small and smooth. Each chestnut has a wrinkled cream-colored kernel covered by a thin brown skin. The nut is protected by a hard, reddish brown membrane known as the pericarp; this is inedible and needs to be removed.

Improved chestnut cultivars produce a single large nut, which is fleshier and has more flavour. The French refer to these larger chestnuts, which are better for cooking, as marrons and to ordinary chestnuts as chätaignes.

SHELLED CHESTNUTS

Put a teaspoon of butter into a frying pan and when the butter has melted turn in two or three cups of chestnuts which have been cross-cut on the flat side. Shake the pan to butter the chestnuts and place them in the oven for five minutes. When you take them out from the shell the brown skin should be easy to remove with a small knife.

Or

Cut a half-inch gash on flat sides and place them in a small frying pan, allowing one-half teaspoon butter per cup of chestnuts. Shake them over the stove until the butter has melted. Place them in the oven and let them stand for five minutes. Then remove them from the oven and take off the shells with a small knife.

ROASTED CHESTNUTS

Wash the chestnuts and make a slit in the side of each one then boil them for 10 minutes in enough water to cover them. Drain them and bake them in a small pan for 10 minutes in a hot oven. Serve hot with salt.

Or

Remove the shells from a pint of chestnuts and place them in a baking dish. Cover them with Chicken Stock seasoned with salt and cayenne pepper, and bake them until they are soft, keeping them covered until they are nearly done. Use the remaining stock left in the pan as a garnish.

BAKED CHESTNUTS

Remove the shells from a pint of chestnuts and put them in a baking-dish. Cover them with Chicken Stock highly seasoned with salt and cayenne, and bake until soft, keeping them covered until they are nearly done. Use the remaining stock left in the pan as a garnish.

BOILED CHESTNUTS

Remove the shells and cook in boiling water for ten minutes. Skim them out, and the brown skin should come off easily. They can again be placed in the boiling water and cooked until tender when pierced with a fork or skewer; they can then be served whole or mashed. They are seasoned with butter, salt, pepper, and cream if desired. They are also added to stuffing for chicken, turkey and veal.

STEWED CHESTNUTS

Remove the shells from one pint of chestnuts, cover with boiling water and let blanch fifteen minutes, then remove the brown skin.

Place in a saucepan, cover with boiling water and boil 15 minutes, add a half-teaspoonful of salt and boil 10 minutes longer, or until you can pierce them with a fork. Drain, place in a heated dish, cover with Cream Sauce and serve.

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Sweet Chestnut Recipes

Chestnut, leek and mushroom tartlets
by The Vegetarian Society

Serves 4
Preparation time 30 mins to 1 hour
Cooking time 1 to 2 hours
Makes either four individual tartlets with 10cm/4in loose-bottomed flan rings or one larger one using a 20-22cm/8-9in flan ring.

Ingredients
225g/8oz ready-made puff pastry (thawed if frozen)
55g/2oz wild rice
2 tbsp olive oil
15g/½oz vegan margarine
370g/13oz leeks, finely chopped
110g/4oz oyster mushrooms, sliced
200g/7oz packed cooked and peeled chestnuts, chopped
2 sprigs fresh rosemary, leaves only, chopped
1 tbsp fresh sage, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1-2 tbsp shoyu or Henderson's relish

Method

  1. Preheat the oven to 200C/400F/Gas 6.
  2. Roll out the pastry on a lightly floured board. Use to line either four individual 10cm/4in loose bottomed flan rings or one 20cm/8in large one. Do not trim the excess pastry yet. Prick the base all over and leave to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes. Bake blind for 15-20 minutes until the pastry is cooked, then trim off the excess.
  3. Cook the rice in boiling water until the grains split (about 30-40 minutes). Drain and allow to cool.
  4. Heat the olive oil and margarine in a frying pan and gently fry the leeks for about five minutes until soft.
  5. Add the mushrooms and fry for a further five minutes, then stir in the chestnuts, rosemary, sage and cooked wild rice and season well with salt and freshly ground black pepper.
  6. Add the shoyu or Henderson's relish and cook for a further two minutes.
  7. Spoon the filling into the pastry case(s) and return to the oven to bake for 5-10 minutes, until warmed through.

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Chestnut and red wine pate
by The Vegetarian Society

Serves 4
Preparation time 1-2 hours
Cooking time less than 10 mins

Ingredients

1 tbsp olive or groundnut oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
1 clove of garlic, crushed
pinch dried thyme
150ml/¼pt red wine
150ml/¼pt vegetable stock
100g/4oz chopped chestnuts (cooked weight)
100g/4oz chestnut purée
75g/3oz wholemeal breadcrumbs
1 tbsp brandy
10-15ml/2-3 tsp soy sauce
salt and freshly ground black pepper

To serve:
fresh herbs, crackers and a fresh green salad

Method

  1. Heat the oil in a saucepan, gently cook the onion and garlic with the dried thyme until soft.
  2. Add the red wine and vegetable stock and bring to the boil.
  3. Remove from the heat and stir in the chopped chestnuts, chestnut purée, breadcrumbs, brandy and soy sauce. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Cook over a gentle heat until thickened. Spoon the pate into individual ramekins, smooth the surface and then chill in the refrigerator until required.
  5. Serve garnished with fresh herbs, with crackers and crisp green salad leaves.

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Sweet Chestnut Jam recipe

Ingredients:

1.5 kilos of fresh chestnuts (buy and prepare at least 1850 gms to allow for bad ones)
The zest of a large lemon
800 gms white granulated sugar
I vanilla pod
200 ml water
100-200 ml rum (depending on taste. We used 200 ml)

Method:

  1. Shell the chestnuts carefully to avoid breaking the inner skin (see Tricks and tips below).
  2. Put them in a saucepan with the lemon zest. Cover with waterBring to the boil and simmer for an hour until soft.
  3. Remove chestnuts in small batches from the hot water, with a slotted spoon, and peel the inner skin. The nuts need to be warm to be peeled easily.
  4. Discard any hard of bad ones (these are much harder and dark inside).
  5. Press the soft husks through a sieve and set aside.
  6. In a clean saucepan slowly dissolve the sugar and water over a low heat. Stirring constantly.
  7. Add the vanilla pod and the sieved chestnuts. Bring to simmering point and simmer for twenty minutes. Stirring every now and then to stop the mixture burning on the base of the pan.
  8. After twenty minutes add the rum and simmer for a further ten minutes, string constantly.
  9. Remove the vanilla pod.
  10. Ladle into warm sterilised jars. Label when cold and store in a cool dry place.

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Brazil & Cashew Nut Roast with Chestnut Stuffing
Ingredients And Procedures<>

2 tb Margarine or water
1 md Onion; finely chopped
1 Garlic clove; crushed
5 Celery stalks
-- finely chopped 3/4 c Cashews, finely ground
3/4 c Brazil nuts, finely ground
1/4 c Flaked millet
1/4 c Bread crumbs 1/2 c Mashed potatoes
2 ts Minced fresh parsley
>1 ts Dried sage

1/2 ts Dried oregano
1/4 ts Ground ginger
1/4 ts Cayenne pepper
1/4 ts Curry powder
1/2 Lemon and rind, grated
Dry wine, veg.broth or water Salt and pepper; to taste 1 c Chestnut puree

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
  2. Heat the margarine or water in a medium frying pan over medium heat and cook the onion until transparent, about 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic and celery and cook 1 minute longer.
  4. Put the mixture in a large bowl with the cashews and Brazil nuts, millet, bread crumbs, potatoes, herbs and spices, lemon juice, and grated rind.
  5. Add enough wine, stock, or water to moisten the mixture so it holds together.
  6. Season lightly with salt and pepper and mix well.
  7. Put half the mixture in a 8-1/2 x 4-1/2-inch loaf pan. Cover with chestnut puree, then add the remaining loaf mixture.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes.
  9. If desired, serve with gravy.


Acknowledgements and further reading:

The Heritage Trees of Britain and Northern IrelandJon Stokes and Donald RodgerConstable
The Oxford Companion to English LiteratureSir Paul HarveyOUP
The Observer's Book of TreesFrederick Warne & Co. Ltd.
The Green Man Tree OracleJohn Matthews & Will WorthingtonBarnes & Noble
The Celtic Book of Seasonal MeditationsClaire HamiltonRed Wheel
The Meaning of TreesFred HagenederChronicle Books
The Complete HerbalNicholas CulpeperGreenwich Editions

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© Ken James 2008