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Chestnuts!

castagnaThe chestnut tree has always given sustenance to Italy's mountain folk, including those in the nearby Garfagnana mountains.

Chestnut trees, which can live for more than 1000 years, are at peak productivity when they are between 80 and 200 venerable years of age. A mature tree will produce about 50 kilograms of chestnuts, enough to feed a hungry family.

And so, the chestnut was once a major element of the recipe for self-reliance. During times of war and pestilence, many people who fled the cities had to depend on chestnuts and other forest products for survival.

The trees’ wood and bark provided tannin for curing leather, their trunks were used to build furniture, the chestnut husks were burned in the fireplace to help people stay warm.

With their high starch content and caloric value, chestnuts were considered an ideal food for humans, and even for horses and pigs.

In a metato (a small two story stone house with a fire burning for several weeks below and the chestnuts distributed on a grate of open beams above), the chestnuts were smoked and dried, then husked and milled into flour for neccio (a kind of pancake), castagnaccio (a flat savoury flan), or frittelle (fritters).

Boiled, they were used as a nourishing accompaniment to meats, or as filling for game birds.

Easiest of all, and delightful on a winter's night by the fireside, was to roast them, then cool them down with a splashing of red wine. In the Garfagnana, various types of chestnuts are still cultivated and used to make sweet chestnut flour: Carpinese, Pontecosi, Mazzangaia, Pelosora, Rossola, Verdora, Nerona and Capannaccia.

Each year in October the festivals, also called Festa della Mondina (roast chestnut), begin. People come together in the open air around the fire pits; they set up tables laden with country recipes, enjoy the crisp fall leaves, the hearty meals accompanied by local wine or Vin Brulè, and camaraderie with their neighbors.

On October 7, from 10am until evening at Parco Villa Fiore, Ponte a Serraglio, Bagni di Lucca (on the Via del Brennero at the traffic lights), there will be stands with necci, mondine, pasta fritta ... and a local products market with arts, crafts and antiques.

Art projects for the children will include pumpkin painting, Pollock-style painting and monsters (by artists Morena Guarnaschelli and Anna Darlington). Proceeds will benefit restoration of the local church bell.

The same day, chestnut festivals will be held at Trassilico (Gallicano), Sassi (Molazzana), Metello (Castelnuovo di Garfa- gnana) and probably in more little villages than we can imagine.

Again, on October 14, chestnut festivals will be held at Cascio (Molazzana), Selva del Buffardello (San Romano in Garfagnana), and Castiglione di Garfagnana (where the annual fair focuses on mushrooms, chestnuts and truffles). / Looking ahead to November 11, Lupinaia (3), at Fosciandora, will hold its fair, offering a lunch of chestnut flour pasta and other chestnut-based recipes. Starting at 11 am, handicrafts, old work tools and photography will be on display, and guided visits to Ponte di Ceserana, Migliano and Lupinaia will be offered (call 320 4131901 or 329 3949009 to join these walks). 

Photos by Heather Jarman and Morena Garnaschelli

 

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