Lucy, who is currently apprenticing in the Embercombe kitchen, gave me the inspiration for this (morally ambiguous) act when she offered me a taste of her chestnut puree. It was smooth and slightly sweet, with a hint of nutmeg. The main ingredient, she said, came from trees on nearby Dartington Estate, which she collected with her mum and sister during their recent visit. A small spoonful of Lucy’s creation made me hungry for more. Not just for more chestnut puree (though the idea of stocking the freezer with it for future winter desserts is admittedly quite motivating), but for the process of bringing the season’s wild abundance to the table.
Sweet Chestnut is thought to have been brought to the UK by the Romans around 100 AD, and has a long history as a staple food in parts of southern Europe and Asia Minor, where “an infinity of people live on nothing else but this fruit [the chestnut]” (Estienne and Liebault 1538; The Cambridge World History of Food). Versatile and abundant, it was used as flour in a variety of ways, including for bread and polenta, before being superseded by wheat and corn. A traditional Corsican wedding feast involved 22 different kinds of dishes made with chestnut flour (Robiquet 1835; The Cambridge World History of Food).
Out I went for a walk on Dartington Estate, a few ever-shorter days after our first frost, to get to know Sweet Chestnut. Autumn has arrived, with winter a cold breath behind, and Chestnut, Oak, and Beech are fully engaged in their family business of mast and foliar magnificence.
There’s more method to Squirrel’s foraging than one might think. Each nut is carefully graded, to determine whether it should be eaten right away (if, for example, it has already become home for a weevil) or cached for winter's larder. Hundreds of caches are made - the principle we know as not putting all your eggs in the same basket. To avoid being a victim of cache-raiding, which is quite common in areas of high population density, Squirrel may pretend to bury a nut in one place, then properly bury it a short distance away. (I was tricked by this once while watching Squirrel caching acorns. Whether the false impression was given on my account, or another one of the six or seven nearby squirrels, I’m not sure.)
“Love is never abstract,” writes Wendell Berry. “It does not adhere to the universe or the planet of the nation or the institution or the profession, but to the singular sparrows of the street, the lilies of the field, ‘the least of these my brethren.’” That singular Sweet Chestnut tree, and that singular Squirrel, in their self-willed existences, have a place in my affection that did not exist before.
I take the bag of Chestnuts back with me. That evening some friends help with the slow process of boiling them and peeling the bitter pellicle away from sweet flesh. It’s a task that necessitates good company, and there’s something about giving our hands a job to do that creates camaraderie and easy conversation. Our fingers are all a bit sore by the end. But, as Lucy wrote when I asked her for chestnut-peeling advice, “As with a lot of things wild, the time is in the processing, not the sowing and weeding.” These chestnuts, having grown so fully of their own accord, with myriad relationships beyond the human realm, are a gift worth taking the time for.
To Squirrel I send an (irrelevant) apology and incalculable thanks.