Updated: Dec 2, 2020
October is harvest time for sweet chestnuts and for us, living surrounded by a sweet chestnut wood, they are not in short supply.
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As the hillsides start turning from green to gold you can often hear the gentle "thud" of chestnuts falling from the trees when walking in the woods, and the ground soon becomes a carpet of shiny chestnuts and their prickly outer cases.
Sweet chestnut trees have been important in many elements of rural Italian life for centuries - for the supply of large roof beams for the traditional farm houses, firewood for the hearths, and durable fence posts both for keeping wildlife out and livestock in the farm.
But it is the fruit of the sweet chestnut that has a particularly important role in the history of our area. In the absence of wheat/cereal crops (which wouldn't have grown up in the hills), chestnuts were dried and then ground to make flour and were a staple food - so much so that they became known as il pane dei poveri: poor man's bread. Sweet chestnut trees would have populated most of the mountain areas, up to about 900m, and in autumn they were collected, before being dried and eventually ground into flour.
You can still find the small chestnut houses (metati) all around our region - usually adjacent to the house itself (indeed, we think that the sort of agricultural extension that once stood to the end of our house would have been a metato). In these buildings there would be a mezzanine floor, on which the chestnuts would be laid out, then a fire would be lit on the floor below, which would be kept burning for around 40 days in order to slowly dry the chestnuts. At the end of the drying period the chestnuts would be beaten by the hammers of a special machine, which separated the chestnuts from their shells. The chestnuts would then be sent to be milled into flour, while the shells would be stored until the following year and used to feed the fire.
A few small producers in our area still mill chestnut flour once a year using the traditional methods and, in most cases, the traditional machinery.
Of course, with such a strong tradition of chestnuts here, there are plenty of different ways in which they are eaten, some of which include: castagnaccio (a sort of cake, made with chestnut flour and water, with optional raisins, pine nuts and rosemary), necci (pancakes made with chestnut flour and eaten with either sweet (ricotta, Nutella) or savoury (cured meats, sausage) fillings), fritelle (a type of sweet fried doughnut made with chestnut flour and sometimes pine nuts and raisins), or simply roasted over coals (frugiate) or boiled, often with wild fennel (ballotte).
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Sweet chestnut are lower in fat and protein than most other types of nut but are high in fibre and complex carbohydrates - making them a good, slow-release energy source. Chestnuts are also high in vitamin C, as well as containing B vitamins, and minerals including potassium, calcium and copper.
There are plenty of traditions and celebrations that surround the chestnut picking and eating season - our neighbouring village of Vellano usually plays host to a chestnut festival, or sagra, in early October, at which you can buy and eat chestnuts in almost any form imaginable. Sadly, of course, in 2020 things have been very different and the festival was not able to go ahead.
That didn't stop the locals foraging for chestnuts - over a two- to three-week period in the autumn every year it's common to find cars parked at the side of the road and families out with thick gloves (if you've ever tried to pick up a chestnut that's still in its spiky outer casing you will understand why) and carrier bags, collecting chestnuts from the trees at the side of the road.
For us, we don't need to go very far at all. Our 12 acres of land includes around 8 acres of woodland, a large proportion of which is chestnut. Even a short walk from the house to the gate can yield more chestnuts than will fit in our pockets! This year we were struck by the very generous size of many of the chestnuts on our land, in particular those from a tree growing on one of our upper terraces. We could easily have collected sackloads, but since we didn't have grand plans for making chestnut flour or selling chestnuts and only intended to collect for our own consumption, we settled for just filling a bucket.
One perhaps slightly less traditional recipe that we stumbled across (certainly more luxurious than would have been the norm for peasant farmers of days gone by) was for chestnuts preserved in rum and honey. We were suitably intrigued and so set about gathering the necessary ingredients. Honey we have plenty of, thanks to the arrangement we have with our beekeeper friend who brings his hives to our property for the acacia flowering season and gives us jars of honey in return. So it was just rum and sugar that we needed to buy.
The process starts with making an incision in the skins of the chestnuts (for which we found a handy device at the supermarket) then boiling them for 10-15 minutes. After that, you simply peel them. Ha! Peeling chestnuts is well and truly a labour of love. Thankfully it is quite meditative and slightly addictive - if it had been any less enjoyable we might have been in danger of throwing the whole lot away. We worked out that it took us 2-3 hours to peel just enough chestnuts for one jar. And we had planned to fill 12 jars!
Once the chestnuts have been painstakingly peeled, you heat sugar with a little water in a pan, before adding honey, and finally the rum. You then pour the liquid over the chestnuts in the (sterilised) jar, put the lids on and then place them in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes - to create the vacuum seal on the jars.
The recipe states that you should then leave the chestnuts at room temperature for 15 days before trying them. So, we await to taste the result!
We calculated that for the number of hours of labour it took us to peel the chestnuts, each jar must be worth around €35-40!!! With that in mind, we hope they pass the taste test.
Chestnuts in rum & honey
1. Wash the chestnuts well and dry them. Make an incision on the flat side of the chestnuts and put them in boiling water to cook for about 10 minutes.
2. Drain then peel the chestnuts (also removing the thinner inner skin).
3. Put the sugar together with the water in a saucepan and cook over a low heat until it begins to foam.
4. Cook for another couple of minutes, then add the honey, mixing it in with the sugar syrup, then turn off the heat and add the rum.
5. Place the chestnuts in sterilised jars and pour over the rum syrup until they are completely covered.
6. Close the jars tightly and put them in a pan of boiling water for about 15 minutes (this is important to create a vacuum).
Cool the jars upside down and let them rest for at least 15 days before eating.
Our suggestion is to try serving the chestnuts and their syrup over vanilla ice cream for a deliciously grown-up dessert.