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Chestnuts and the culture of the Tuscan mountains

In the past, the chestnut (Castanea sativa) has been the main product for feeding the mountain populations in Tuscany, specially in Casentino and Garfagnana. That's why this is still one of the most important typical products of Tuscany...


In the past, the chestnut (Castanea sativa) has been the main product for feeding the mountain populations in Tuscany, specially in Casentino and Garfagnana. That's why this is still one of the most important typical products of Tuscany. Not only the chestnut itslef for all derivative products like the chestnut flour. The chestnut tree is certainly the most imposing and beautiful feature of the Tuscan woods, specially in the mountains areas, as told before, located basicaly in the two territories of Casentino (in the Apennines) and the Garfagnana (in the Apuane Alps).

The chestnut is a fruit that represents many faces of Tuscany: its vegetation; its cuisine and its culture. There are many proverbs realted to the chestnut (CASTAGNA, in Italian) and also many recipes, as long as it has been the main people's mean of subsistence during the past hard times. There have always been and still there is a strong relationship between man and the chestnuts. The whole process of the chestnut harvesting and manufacture is still mostly a handicraft. There is no cultivation, only hand pick up of spontaneous fruits.

There are many different types of “castagne”: the “marroni”, “madistolla”, “raggiolana”, “pistolese”, “tigolese” and so on. The fresh chestnuts can be cooked and eaten in different ways: roasted on the barbecue (called “caldarroste”), boiled in plain water with the husk (in Casentino, called “baloci” or “ballotte”) or boiled without the husk in salted water with wild fennel (in Casentino, called “tigliate”).

The chestnut is a product of high energetic and caloric levels, a very important property for the mountain people specially to get over the winter. It has a great quantity of saccharose and low quantity of water. It is also rich of fibers, great for the gastroenteric health. The chestnuts are an excellent alternative for children who have intolerance to lactose and for people who are intolerant to some kinds of cereals.

>> "Necci" - typical pancake of chestnut flour

The main product that derives from the chestnut is the flour, and it's in the same time a raw material for many other local products. The chestnut flour is the base for: polenta, pasta (tagliatelle, pappardelle and others), pancakes, cakes and desserts. The chestnut flour receives the name of “farina dolce” or “farina di neccio” in local terms. The process to make the chestnut flour also remained almost like it was in the past. The chestnuts must get dry in a wood oven, usually the burning wood is from the chestnut tree itself.

This is not a good burning wood for house fireplaces because doesn't burn well and produces a lot of smoke. Also the discards of chestnut of the previous year was used to burn in the oven. Only after the chestnuts got dry, it was possible to remove their hard husks. This is the only part of the work that nowadays is made by a motorized machine. After that the chestnuts go into a mill. There are still lots of antique watermills in function in these production areas which are able to produce chestnut flour according to the old traditions of this lands.

>> Castagnaccio - typical cake made with chestnut flour

What can be made with chestnut flour? The most famous typical products made with chestnut flour are: polenta (the flour is cooked in boiling water mixing it for a long time, 1 – 2 hours); pasta (the chestnut flour can be used in the place of regular flour in the handmade pasta, giving it a delicate and sweet taste); “necci” (it's a typical dish from the Garfagnana, a pancake made with chestnut flour and wrapped with a filling of “ricotta” - soft Italian cheese made with milk whey); “castagnaccio” or “bardino” (cake made with chestnut flour and other ingredients like wallnuts or pine seeds, orange peelings and more variations).

>> Necci with ricotta

We can't forget to mention the chestnut honey, a very typical product of Tuscany. This kind of honey can be easy recognized by its dark color, brown like the chestnut itself and the taste is intense and kind of bitter. That's the reason why it's matched perfectly with a little bit of scratched truffles and pecorino cheese. Also very common is the chestnut jam, ideal for breakfast or afternoon snack with bread.

>> Castagna honey - is the dark one

Info about CASTAGNE and other products:

FESTIVALS: On the month of October you will see many bills all around saying “Festa della Castagna” or “Sagra della Castagna”, festivals that take place in many Tuscan towns during the Fall, like Caprese Michelangelo, Anghiari, Talla, Castel San Nicolò, Poppi, Castelnuovo di Garfagnana, Gallicano, Careggine and many other Tuscan villages.

WHERE: Casentino, Garfagnana and all over Tuscany. You can purchase chestnuts at the street markets, vegetable markets, local shops or in the supermarkets. The roasted chestnuts “caldarroste” are sold on the streets of each city and town.

WHEN: Autumn and Winter (the chestnut harvest starts on October, you can find them aproximately until December). The chestnut flour can be found in the vegetables markets, organic shops, local products shops and also in the supermarkets all year round.

There is even a Museum dedicated to the chestnut, as to express how this is important for the local people. MUSEO DEL CASTAGNO is located in the village of Colognora (Province of Lucca) in the Garfagnana area. For more info about how to visit the chestnut museum, check thir website.
October is also time for the “vino novello” (the new wine), which is sweet and tasty just like the chestnut!

Text by Adriana Lucchesi Oct 2010.

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