Plants

Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa)

Chestnut trees are by no means a common sight in South Africa, but the few that are around, however, bear plentiful gifts every autumn. The Sweet Chestnut (Castanea sativa) was introduced to South Africa no less than 150 years ago and was mainly planted for ornamental purposes. Mainly established in the Western Cape, this edible nut is highly regarded around most of the northern hemisphere for its versatility as a food source. During summer, upright, yellow catkins appear from the end of its branches which eventually form into spiky green husks by autumn which contain the shiny, brown chestnuts with their shells on. Each husk may contain up to four individual nuts. The best way to get the nuts out of the husk is by popping them out with the shoes on your feet – look for the fallen husks which are still bright green in colour, secure one between your shoes and use a pincer-like squeeze to prise them out. The needles on the husk are really sharp so watch out!

The most simple and popular method to prepare chestnuts is by roasting them so that the shells open to release the actual nuts. Each nut needs to be scored before roasting or they will explode from the heat – this can be done using the short-curved blade of an Opinel No.7 knife, designed for this purpose. I find that scoring an X shape using the natural curvature of the nut helps the shell peel away during roasting. The top part of the nut is where the lines meet to create the X.

Once scored, roast the nuts at 180°C for twenty minutes. Use gloves to get the nuts out of the shells after roasting. Not every chesnut will be sufficient for peeling, but look for the larger nuts where the shell has begun to lift from the heat. Within the brown outer-shell is an thin, inner membranous covering the nut. It peels away easily with enough humidity and will begin to stick to the shell once the nut begins to cool from the the roasting process. Use a pair of gloves to do this while the nuts are still warm.

It’s likely that not every nut made it this far, but the end result can be simply fried with a little butter and salt, dried and made into chestnut flour, turned into something sweet like marrons glacés or incorporated into a pâté with wild mushrooms.

This website takes a sustainable approach to foraging and doesn’t focus on protected or indigenous plants or fungi. Like the other invasive plants on this website, this is a species that should not be cultivated or propagated in South Africa. It’s often illegal to buy, sell or trade in exotic plants.

Learn how to forage with this South African foraging guide, or find out which South African books cover foraging

Other wild edible plants to forage in South Africa