Writing about beech trees started out as being in my ‘what to do on a picnic’ section. But the time of year where you can actually get these nuts and leaves would make for a pretty darn chilly picnic, so think of this more as a lovely focus for a big communal walk on one of those gorgeously crisp and sunny early autumn days. The kind of day where you definitely aren’t going to take a whole picnic but you might pack a couple of scotch eggs just in case.
Where: Beech trees are only native to Yorkshire but have been planted into parks and woodland all over the place. The North and South Downs both have ‘beech hangers’ which are woods of beech trees.
When the nuts from a beech tree are ready they will fall to the ground, creating a sort of carpet around the foot of the trees. The nuts can be eaten raw but their cases are hard as heck to open with your fingers. The best thing to do is to leave them alone indoors for a day so and you will see that the husks magically open up to reveal the nuts inside. Or not. It is one of nature’s jokes that not all beechnut cases contain nuts.
Roasted beechnuts are a very moorish nibble. Put the oven on at 200 degrees celsius. Use a sharp knife to take off the brown outer skin from the nuts and then spread them out in a shallow baking tin. Roast for 5-10 minutes, keeping an eye on them so they do not burn.
Allow the nuts to cool before taking off the inner brown skin and rolling them in salt. They can be stored in an air-tight container for a few weeks.
This is a good one if you can bear to think about Christmas whilst out on your autumn walk. One of my Grandees told me that as a girl she used to dry out beech leaves of an autumn and then keep them for use in Christmas decorations. Even though these leaves are among the most sturdy once they are dried they do still need some preserving to make sure that they will stay strong enough to be useful later on.
Try to pick the leaves in the early part of autumn when they will still have some sap inside – that will help them take a drink of this preserving mixture. You are looking for stems with several leaves on rather than just single leaves.
For 12 sprays of beech leaves you will need 450ml glycerine and 750ml boiling water. Also two deep jugs or jars (cleaned marmaladey or jammy ones are ideal).
Cut away the leaves from the lower part of the stem so that there is something clear of leaves to sit in the jar/jug. Then use a small sharp knife to split this lower section in two up to about 5cm.
Mix together the glycerine and water and then divide between the containers. Whilst still hot, stand six stems in each. Leave them in a cool place for about two weeks by which time the stems should have drunk enough preserve and the underside of the leaves will look oily. Now lay the stems on newspaper for a few days and then store in empty vases until Christmas wheels around.