3 Feb 2006
Top Five Trees for Life Beyond Oil – #5 – The Sweet Chestnut.
Many years ago I lived near a small village in the Tuscan hills called Santa Luce. It had a long main street that ran up the hill, lined with Sweet Chestnut trees, huge, ancient and beautiful old trees. Every autumn the streets were covered with large, ripe and firm chestnuts, but nobody ever ate them. I asked a friend, as I filled my hat, my pockets, my bag with chestnuts why nobody ever ate them. He said it was a remnant from World War 2, when people had to eat them, and they are referred to as ‘war food’. It felt like a real shame that such a cultural memory should be passed down to subsequent generations who miss out on the opportunity to enjoy this great tree. They are far more delicious than the closest UK equivalent I could think of something people don’t eat so much due to their being ‘war food’, the turnip.
The Sweet Chestnut *(Castanea sativa)* hails originally from that part of the world, around the Mediterranean, and was brought to the UK, along with the walnut tree, public baths, central heating and orgies, by the Romans. They can grow up to 30m and cast quite a dense shade (Sweet Chestnuts that is, not Romans). Their nuts have a protein content of around 10% which is roughly equivalent to that of grains. They can be eaten raw, baked, roasted or boiled. They can be ground into flour or made into the rather delicious French sweets marrons glaces. There are few things as delicious as chestnuts that have just been roasted over a fire until the shells pop. Also, red cabbage with chestnuts is a bit of a Christmas favourite in my house.
Sweet chestnut can be grown as a timber tree, producing a highly valued timber, usually grown on 50-70 year rotations. It is often grown as part of a mixed broadleaved woodland. It also coppices extremely well. Sweet chestnut coppice took off in the UK in the 1800s to be able to supply the hop industry with long straight poles. When wire came in to replace them, chestnut coppice woodlands declined, but then a new market emerged for chestnut palings, which revived their fortunes. Chestnut is the most durable outdoor timber, and can be used to make shingles, fencing, charcoal, and many other woodland products.
Ben Law in Sussex, author of The Woodland Way and The Woodland House, manages an old chestnut coppice wood along permaculture lines. It is a lovely place, and Ben has done much to make it a viable enterprise. Unfortunately all the photos I have of the place are slides so I can’t share them with you. His amazing house which some of you might have seen on Channel 4’s Grand Design’s programme, is made from Sweet Chestnut roundwood poles and roofed with chestnut shingles. It is a great advert for the usefulness of this material. Ben was featured in this week’s Open Country programme, which visited the High Weald area of Sussex.
The Agroforestry Research Trust have been doing trials on chestnut varieties at their trial site in Devon. The trees were planted 10 years ago, and already certain varieties are showing great promise. The highest yielding varieties were Bouche de Betizac, Bournette, Marigoule, Marlhac and Vignois, followed by Marron Comballe, Marron Goujounac, Maridoone, Rousse de Nay and Verdale. Average yields after 10 years were around 9kg of sellable nuts. From 1 acre of trees the total crop was over 450g. Clearly chestnuts have great promise and we are now able, thanks to the work of pioneers like the ART, to plant with confidence.