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Le Castagne – Chestnuts

In Calabria, once upon a time before there were tomatoes (there was a time like this!) and before there was inexpensive pasta, people subsisted on Chestnuts – there was little else so readily available to stave off starvation in the wintertime. They boiled them with other vegetables, they dried them and ground them up for flour to make a heavy kind of bread, and they slowly roasted them in stone ovens for a delicious aromatic snack. The wood as well was very important, used for many purposes, from furniture to firewood.
An elaborate system of gathering, cleaning and drying these nuts developed, with some parts of the process assigned to men, and others to women and children. If you’ve ever been to Calabria in the late summer or early autumn, you have seen these large trees pregnant with big prickly yellowish green spherical husks, nasty to touch, with one to four chestnuts inside. They usually fall in mid October, almost exactly the same time every year. The last two times I visited, I was just a little too early to be able to participate in the harvest. This time, on the day before I left Calabria, my cousin presented me with a pound or so of the very first chestnuts of the season.
Even though people no longer subsist on Chestnuts, they are still a relatively important crop. They are now used more for treats than subsistence, and are also given to pigs to fatten them up. I have one cousin whose job it is to study the health of the Castagno (Chestnut tree) and another of my cousins, Teresa Riccio, has actually written a book about the historical and sociological significance of this tree Il castagno nella tradizione di una Comunità Presilana: Sersale. And I just discovered that they are very fun to paint!

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  1. October 11th, 2010 at 05:53 | #1

    Great post and those chestnuts look good enough to roast 😀

  2. October 10th, 2010 at 16:46 | #2

    My mouth is watering for such a treat, Mimi. Your paintings are treats as well!

  3. October 10th, 2010 at 06:37 | #3

    Love the chestnut painting. I also love chestnuts roasting on an open fire. We love them burned on the outside and soft on the inside. The trick – once roasted, wrap them in a dish towel and let them rest for 5 to 10 minutes. This creates a steam environment that keeps them warm, crisp and soft at the same time. Add to that a good glass of wine, a glowing fire and great conversation.

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      October 10th, 2010 at 06:52 | #4

      Elisa, how long do you cook them? Do you literally put them in the fire?

      • October 10th, 2010 at 10:48 | #5

        I have a large pan with handle and holes at the bottom which I purchased locally purposely for roasting cestnuts. Partially slit each chestnut with a knife. This slashing prevents the chestnuts from busting. Once all chestnuts are slit, place on burning wood or embers. (Lack of a fireplace, no problem. Place this pan over a cooktop at low to medium heat. It’s a little messy since debris falls on the stove top.) Once the chestnuts are placed over charcoal or stove, they need to stirred frequently to prevent burning and for better cooking throughout. Time – about 1/2 hour. The outer skin will shrink around the slit. Once roasted, place them in a container and cover immediately with a cloth for 5 to 10 minutes. Most importantly is the stirring. I use a wooden spoon. The smell permeates throughout the house. Let me know the results.

  4. October 10th, 2010 at 05:54 | #6

    The whole story of the chestnuts is bsolutely fascinating! And the paintings are lovely. Waiting to see more of Italia.

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