Sweet chestnuts were introduced into the UK by the Romans who ground their nuts down into flour. The southern European native took to its new home and quickly spread through woodlands.
In Hyde Park a row of around one hundred sweet chestnut trees were planted in the late nineteenth century. They are on the north side of Rotten Row**, parallel to the Serpentine, an area that was a fashionable place to go horse riding at the time. This broad track is still used to exercise horses from the army barracks.
Nowadays walkers, runners and cyclists jostle for space along the paths on either side. I went urban foraging for late sweet chestnuts on my way home from work on a rather miserable November night this week. Most of the spiky cases had already been masterly infiltrated by smart squirrels and Serpentine geese (apparently also keen foragers). However, I did manage to tease out a few shiny nuts snuggly enclosed in their spiky cases. It was like trying to persuade someone to get out of bed in the morning. The best way to get them out is to rather unceremoniously stamp on them.
Chestnuts should always be cooked before eating. They can be coaxed out of their skins by boiling or roasting. In order to make sure they come out, make a small incision on the side beforehand. Chestnuts need to be peeled while the nuts are still hot. They can then be eaten like that or incorporated into a number of sweet and savoury dishes.
Hampstead Heath, Greenwich park and Richmond Parks are all good places for chestnut foraging. But to get a decent bounty you really need to be hunting in October.
Post pictures of your urban harvest with #rewildinglondon.
**The track was originally called Route du Roi (it led to St James’ palace) which was corrupted into Rotten Row. In 1690 it became the first artificially lit highway in Britain when 300 oil lamps were installed in a bid to reduce attacks from highwaymen lurking in the darkness of the park.