The joy of conkers

Every October the school playground would become a combat zone, given over to the deadly serious pursuit of conkers. The sound of smashing filled the air, followed by a whoop of joy and a triumphant declaration: “this one’s a kinger,” “mine’s a sixer”, “Geoff’s got a niner”.

Other than playing marbles in the drains there was no greater satisfaction to be had at break time. You found the biggest shiniest conker you could on the weekend, maybe cheated a little and pickled it overnight in vinegar, begged an old shoelace from mum and tried not to skewer yourself drilling a hole right through it. Then let tournament commence and woe betide anyone who didn’t abide by the rules.

Anyone for a game of obblyonkers?

I read recently that, on finding your first horse chestnut seed of the year, saying “oddly oddly onker my first conker” will bring good fortune for the coming season. I can’t find a meaning for onker but conker may have been derived from the French word for a conch shell – conque.

Before the horse chestnut tree was introduced to Britain from the Balkans in the 16th century, the game was played with snail shells, or with acorns, hazelnuts or cobnuts (see below). In the US, the game is called buckeyes, the local name for the horse chestnut tree in the “buckeye state” of Ohio. UK regional variations include such Roald Dahlesque words as obblyonkers, cheggers and cheesers

Relive your own happy childhood memories – or get revenge on an arch rival – by going Bonkers for Conkers this weekend at the 11th annual contest at Langham Brewery on the Cowdray Estate in West Sussex.

While it’s thought to be a bit of a myth that putting conkers around the house keeps spiders at bay, placing fresh ones in with clothes (conkers not spiders!) may well help to repel moths. Carrying them in your pocket is believed by some to prevent piles and rheumatism, and the Vikings even made soap out of crushed up old conkers. Not sure how much of a lather you could work up but they’d certainly act as an exfoliator…

The edible varieties

The seed of the horse chestnut tree is too toxic to eat but don’t let that put you off trying the delights of the sweet chestnut tree, brought to our shores by the Romans as fodder for the legions. Used by the Italians to make polenta before the introduction of maize, sweet chestnuts were also once a staple food of Corsica, helping to ward off famine and prized enough to be used as a currency. Later this month some 30,000 kg of chestnuts will be devoured at the National Chestnut Festival in Cuneo in northern Italy – be sure to try the candied marrons glacés, or here’s how to make your own.

At a local Apple Day recently I spotted cobnuts for sale and realised I knew nothing about this distant relative of the hazelnut. It turns out that in this country they come mainly from Kent and are in season from mid-August to October. When young and green they taste a little like coconut, turning sweeter as they become more golden. Savoured as an after dinner delicacy by the Victorians, Kentish cobnuts are in decline with only around 250 acres still grown today. Add them to a crumble topping or use in pesto instead of pine nuts. Or you could always try threading a shoelace through one and challenging someone to a game of cobnuts – may the toughest nut win!

Photo by Pixabay on

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