Sweet chestnut, walnut & cobnut

by Daphne Lambert

Even though there are nuts year round I think of nuts as winter food. During the winter months the shops and markets are full of unshelled nuts. Sharing conversations whilst cracking open nuts is a very satisfying way of spending a winters evening and it’s pretty hard to beat roasting chestnuts in front of an open fire on a cold frosty night.


Nuts are packed full of beneficial fats, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and phytonutrients. It is often assumed that eating nuts will cause weight gain, but research shows that this is not the case. Regularly eating nuts can improve your all-round health. My favourite nuts are sweet chestnut, cobnut and walnut and whilst they can all be grown in Britain, and some are indeed grown commercially, most are imported.


Sweet chestnut

The European chestnut, (Castanea sativa) also named sweet chestnut, is a tree of great longevity. Beside the parish church of Totworth in Gloucestershire is a sweet chestnut, some say it's more like a mini woodland as many of the branches have rooted and it is hard to see where the original trunk ends and the new trunks begin. The main trunk could be 1,100 years old making it one of the oldest trees in the country. The Romans who most likely introduced chestnuts to Britain ranked chestnuts alongside the olive tree and the grapevine as the plants of most importance to civilization.


Chestnuts have a far higher carbohydrate content than other nuts with a low content of protein and fat they are comparable to other starch foods – potatoes, plantain, cereals. Traditionally chestnuts have been grown in areas unsuitable for arable crops to provide carbohydrate nourishment. The distinct composition has given rise to the nickname the grain that grows on trees, in France it is called l’arbre a pain, - the tree of bread. The high vitamin C content of chestnuts also sets them apart from other nuts.


People with grain allergies can substitute with chestnuts and chestnut flour, as they contain no gluten. Of course there are those with nut allergies too and an allergic reaction to nuts can be severe and even life threatening. Some people who are allergic to one or more nut can safely tolerate others, but others need to avoid all nuts about 1 in 200 people in the UK have an allergy to a tree nut. Sweet chestnut is the least common nut allergy in the UK with cobnut and walnut being more prevalent.


Walnuts

Walnuts have long provided us with nourishment, the Ancient Greeks called walnuts karyon, or ‘head’, probably because the shell resembles the human skull and the kernel bears a resemblance to the brain. The Romans widely cultivated the walnut but thought walnuts looked more like testicles and consecrated the walnut tree to Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, calling the nuts ‘glands of Jupiter’ This became condensed to juglans giving rise to the scientific name, Juglans regia, literally, ‘royal nut of Jupiter’.


Walnuts are an excellent source of the anti-inflammatory fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) and in studies on the cardiovascular health of men; the form of vitamin E found in walnuts seems to provide significant protection from heart problems.

Walnuts contain several unique and powerful antioxidants that are available in only a few commonly eaten foods. These include juglone, tellimagrandin and morin. Anti-oxidants are critical to good health and are part of what determines the way you age.



Cobnut

A cobnut is the cultivated form of our native wild hazel (corylus avellana) a hazelnut is the wild nut and much smaller.

Since ancient times hazel trees have been an important source of food and coppiced wood. The hazel is a mythical tree, in Celtic folklore it represents wisdom and in Norse mythology hazel is known as the Tree of Knowledge.

In Victorian times there were about 7,000 acres of cobnut trees mostly in Kent today there are about 400 acres, always called cobnut in Kent the name seems interchangeable with hazel elsewhere.

Cobnuts are a good source of vitamin E and high in the mono-unsaturated fat oleic acid, both needed to support a healthy heart.

Cobnuts contain potent phytochemicals including proanthocyanidins, powerful anti-oxidants that studies show plays an important role in decreasing the risk of chronic disease & quercetin which can lessen allergic symptoms by stabilising mast cells and preventing them from releasing histamine.


Chestnuts, walnuts and cobnuts are all good sources of folate, cobnuts, especially, are exceptionally rich in this important nutrient. Folate is a B-complex vitamin necessary for normal cellular function, homocysteine conversion and playing an important role in preventing neurological defects in the fetus. Nuts are an excellent source of minerals such as iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, phosphorus, potassium and zinc.


Nuts (like all seeds and grains) contain phytic acid which is the plants storage form of phosphorus. Phytic acid readily binds with minerals especially iron and zinc preventing their absorption. Whilst some people have an intestinal microbiota able to degrade phytate thus releasing nutrients that the body needs others do not. Many traditional cultures intuitively deactivated phytic acid by soaking nuts in a salt solution before low temperature drying thus increasing the bio-availability of nutrients. If you eat a lot of nuts year round it may be worth considering soaking and drying, but there is probably little need to do this to the nuts you enjoy straight from the shell over the winter months.


Chestnut soup

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium onions chopped

2 cloves garlic finely chopped

6 parsnips peeled and chopped

500 ml vegetable stock

500 ml milk (traditionally cows but oat milk works fine)

dessertspoon chopped thyme leaves


250g roast, peeled & chopped chestnuts.

Gently cook the onions and garlic in the olive oil, when soft tip in the parsnips and cook for a further 5 minutes. Add the stock, milk, thyme and chestnuts bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes. Blitz with a blender adding a little water if too thick, return to pan warm through, season as necessary with salt and pepper and ladle into bowls


Walnut & beetroot houmus

300g peeled beetroot in cm cubes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon ground cumin
good splash tamari and a pinch of salt
75g walnut pieces
2 tablespoons tahini
1 clove garlic finely diced juice and zest of half a lemon salt and black pepper


oven 200C/400F/gas no 6

Toss the beetroot in the olive oil with the cumin, tamari and salt. Place in a lidded oven proof dish and bake in the oven for 40 mins, remove and cool.
Blitz the walnut pieces in a food processor until fine then add beetroot, tahini, garlic, lemon juice, a little salt and a good grind of pepper and blend until creamy, adding a little water if necessary.


Apple & cobnut salad

1 bunch of watercress

1 small head of radicchio

1 handful of purslane

2 medium sized eating apples

2 handfuls shelled cobnuts

4 tablespoons cobnut oil

1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar

1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped


Pick over the watercress and purslane, separate the radicchio leaves breaking into smaller pieces as necessary.

Make the dressing by combining the cobnut oil, cider vinegar and shallot.

Quarter and core the apples and cut into fine slices. Put into a bowl with the salad leaves and cobnuts and gently toss with the dressing. Divide between 4 bowls.


Cobnut dukka

2 tablespoons dried cobnuts

2 tablespoons sesame

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

1 teaspoon cumin seeds

sea salt &freshly ground black pepper


oven 190C/375F/gas mark 5

Lightly toast the cobnuts in the oven until golden brown about 10 minutes. Wrap the nuts in a tea towel and let steam 1 minute. Rub the nuts in the towel to remove loose skins but don't worry about any skins that don't come off leave to cool completely.

In a fry pan over a medium heat lightly toast the sesame, coriander and cumin seeds. Grind altogether in a pestle and mortar, season with salt & pepper.


Tuscan Castagnaccio

250g chestnut flour

320 mls filtered water

pinch of salt

extra virgin olive oil

40g sultanas

50 ml sweet white wine- warmed

50g chopped walnuts

1 dessertspoon rosemary needles

handful pine kernels


preheat oven 180°C/gas mark 4

shallow baking dish (approx. 12" x 8") brushed with olive oil


Sieve the flour into a large mixing bowl then slowly pour in the cold water stirring until the mixture resembles a pourable batter. Stir in 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

Set aside for 30 minutes.

Soak the sultanas in warm wine for 20 minutes to plump up.

Add the chopped walnuts and the plumped sultanas to the flour-batter mixture

Pour the batter into the prepared tin and sprinkle over the pine nuts and rosemary. Trickle a tablespoon of olive oil over the batter

Bake in the upper part of the oven for 40 minutes. During cooking the top of the cake will crack but this is quite normal.

Remove and cool, eat warm possibly with a spoonful of mascarpone