The sweet chestnut is found all over Britain. It’s regarded as an honorary native, thought to have been introduced to the British Isles by the Romans. The tree can grow to a height of 30-35 metres and develops a broad crown. The flowers, which take the form of catkins develop into clusters of sharp-spined yellow/green husks that split open in the autumn to reveal shiny red/brown nuts.
In the past in the UK sweet chestnuts were planted and coppiced in large quantities for charcoal manufacture. Today Kent and Sussex are the major areas for chestnut coppice and thousands of acres are managed commercially. The sweet chestnut seeds are edible and are mainly seen being sold roasted by street sellers in the winter months. In Italy chestnut wood is used to make the barrels for ageing Balsamic vinegar. Italy is a major exporter of sweet chestnuts to the UK.
In Corsica, where sweet chestnuts were once used as currency and are still a staple food, they are made into a type of polenta as well as a local beer.
Sweet chestnuts whether roasted of made into flour formed an important part of the Roman diet and it is reported that Alexander the Great and the Romans planted chestnut trees across Europe during their various campaigns. Roman soldiers are thought to have been given a porridge made from sweet chestnuts before going into battle.
The Sweet Chestnut considered to be the oldest and biggest in Europe ‘The Hundred Horse Chestnut Tree’ is located in Sicily near the Eastern slope of Mt Etna. It is believed to be between 2000 and 4000 years old and is listed by the Guinness World Records as having the greatest tree girth ever. The name comes from the story that during a severe thunderstorm Queen Joanna of Aragon and her company of one hundred knights found shelter under the tree.