Nuts About Chestnuts

Castagnate (chestnut feste) abound at this time in our part of the world. They are places where one can meet up with friends, enjoy products made from the chestnut (including, of course, roast chestnuts themselves!) and they are also places where old memories are remembered and traditions revived.

If Dr Johnson demeaningly said of oats that they are ‘a grain, which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people’ then more proudly and happily one can say of chestnuts in Italy ‘they are a fruit which today give pleasure and joy through festivals and the many food and drink products they are the basis of but which once supported the entire population of the Tuscan-Emilian Apennines.’

Where would one be without marrons glacées, chestnut jam, necci (chestnut pancakes made with chestnut flour), mondine (roast chestnuts), chestnut cakes (delicious!), and pan di legno (literally ‘wood bread’) chestnut bread?

It is sobering to think that without the chestnut tree many Italians, especially ‘gli sfollati’, those escaping from the second world war-ravaged cities into the woods, would have literally died of starvation. One of my favourite books is intrepid traveller Eric Newby’s ‘Love and War in the Apennines’ (made into a film in 2001 starring Callum Blue) where he describes his experiences as a British soldier. Having escaped from an internment camp in Italy Newby manages to survive in the forests of the Apennines surrounding us and where he met hospitality from the locals and his future wife too. Sadly Eric died in 2006 – I would have loved to have met him! Now I won’t even be able to meet his wife, Wanda who died last year. For, when asked if there was one thing he couldn’t travel without, Newby replied: “My wife.”

There are so many castagnate happening now and they are all as unique as the little villages where they take place.

Last Sunday, for example, there were the following to choose from near us and this is just a selection!

Our favourite one has always been the one at Lupinaia in the comune of Fosciandora (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/new-chestnuts/ on that one. Bagni di Lucca was supposed to have its castagnata soon  but, regrettably, it has had to be cancelled this year. However, there are still the following to get to:

You’ll still be in time for the castagnate at Bolognana and Trassilico on October 16th. the ones at Mont’Alfonso Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, Careggine and Pieve Fosciana on October 23rd, the Pontecosi castagnata on October 30 and the Lupinaia one on 13th November. There will be others in our area of course. You’ll just have to look out for them!

We’d never been to the castagnata at Cascio, so plumped for that one this year. The weather however, looked ominous with very stormy, dark clouds. It turned out, indeed, to be a somewhat wet castagnata but visitors were out in droves, the umbrellas added a colourful touch and, luckily, the locals didn’t postpone the event.  For when it rains in Italy it’s truly a serious thing and, unlike the UK where precipitations seems more the norm, rain in Italy tends to completely reschedule open-air events.

We queued up to get our tickets and I obtained an excellent platter of local products including biroldo – a sort of blood-sausage -, pecorino cheese, bread, crisciolette (see my post at https://longoio2.wordpress.com/2016/08/01/whats-a-criscioletta/ to find out what those scrumptious items, unique to Cascio, are), wine and water, and even managed to find a dry spot under the ruins of the fortress. The views from this part of town are stratospheric.

Meanwhile, the serving department was busy at work.

This year the chestnut roasters were saying how lucky they were to have a warm toasting fire before them. It was getting a bit nippy with all that rain! Last year, evidently, they were complaining how unnaturally hot it was at this time of year and what a sweaty job roasting the caldarroste.

Cascio has a charming church dedicated to Saints Lawrence and Stephen. It contains a sweet Della Robbian Madonna:

The village’s gatehouse had two fine local photographers displaying their art.

The ciambelle (doughnut) makers were busy at work.

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Two wandering minstrels gave us a medley of favourite songs including that perennnial ‘volare’ by the great Domenico Modugno and now almost sixty years old!

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The upper part of town had the necci makers hard at work with their ferri (waffle irons) and there was also a desert course included.

A sign tempted to a metato (chestnut drying hut) deep in the surrounding woods where further goodies awaited us including a delicious liqueur made out of chestnuts. I was told that I could find places that sold it in and around Barga.

All-in-all it was an exhilarating day with the rain diminishing in the afternoon. Congratulations to all the Casciani for their great efforts to make this Castagnata another success in their annual calendar of events.

 

 

 

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