There are many different types of nuts to be gathered and eaten from the hedgerows. These include chestnuts, walnuts and hazelnuts. Nuts are extremely good for you, often containing many vitamins and essential oils. Nuts are usually ready to harvest around September and October.
When out gathering nuts, you should arm yourself with a basket to hold them in and a decent field guide to identify them with. You may also consider taking an experienced friend with you, who can point you in the right direction and help you identify edible nuts from non-edible nuts. It’s important not to gather non-edible nuts; these are often important source of food for wild animals, and will go to waste if you harvest them and don’t eat them.
There’s nothing more enjoyable than a roasted sweet chestnut to go with a mulled wine on a cold winter’s day. Sweet chestnuts are a traditional Christmas food and many people still do roast them on an open fire (however, you can also cook them in the oven).
Gathering sweet chestnuts is relatively simple, however it’s important to be able to distinguish them from horse chestnuts, or conkers, which are slightly different. Horse chestnuts are usually larger than sweet chestnuts, and taste very bitter by comparison. What’s more, horse chestnuts are poisonous.
Sweet chestnuts are smaller than horse chestnuts, and have lots of very prickly spikes on their outer shells (many more spikes than the horse chestnut). You can further identify a sweet chestnut by opening up the outer shell. It will reveal up to three sweet nuts, whereas opening up a horse chestnut will just reveal one. Once you have gathered your sweet chestnuts you can roast them on the open fire, or toast them under the grill or in a wok, for a tasty wintry feast.
Hazelnuts are often found in countryside hedgerows, but also in abundance in back gardens (however you should never go and pick nuts from someone else’s garden). You may also find a farm near you, which opens for a ‘pick your own hazelnuts’ day, similar to those you will find in the summer, selling strawberries and raspberries.
Once you have gathered your hazelnuts, you will need to store them in a cool, dry place for up to six weeks prior to shelling them. This allows them to dry and become edible. To crack the nuts after they have dried requires a great deal of patience. You should aim to break the nuts open with a nut cracker, however you may find you resort to using a hammer before the day is out.
Walnuts are rarely found in the UK these days, but you will find pockets of walnut trees in more rural areas. Walnuts are ready to be picked in late autumn, and are wet, when fresh. Unlike hazelnuts, walnuts require shelling before they are dried, although you can also eat them when wet, as an unusual delicacy.
If you are gathering nuts on private land, it’s important to bear in mind a few rules. Always get permission from the landowner before you set out. Follow the country code; close gates behind you, take your litter with you and try not to tread on, or disturb wild flowers, which are important to the local ecology.