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Chestnuts: the Bread Tree : Though regarded mainly as a seasonal treat in America, the chestnut was vital sustenance year-round--indeed, a means of survival--for centuries in France and Italy.

December 17, 1995|COLMAN ANDREWS

"A matin castagne, a megiudi pestumi, a seira castagnon."

("In the morning, chestnuts; at midday, chestnut crumbs; in the evening, dried chestnuts.")

--Saying from Triora, in the western Ligurian mountains


Chestnuts roasting on an open fire are one of the commonplaces of the season--even in Southern California, where the open fire, December or not, might well be mesquite in the Weber.

The smell of chestnuts cooking in blackened iron pans over braziers on the streets of Paris is an emblem of that city at this time of year. Marrons glaces and other chestnut-based confections tend to show up on our tables, if they show up at all, only around the holidays. To us, in other words, the chestnut is pretty much a wintertime treat and not much else.

For centuries, though, in the back-country behind the French and Italian Rivieras, the chestnut was vital sustenance--as basic and essential to the local diet as, say, the date was to the Bedouin or the potato to the Irish.

In earlier, harsher times, they say, when famine visited the region, villages that grew chestnut trees survived, while those that did not were decimated. In the interior of Liguria, as elsewhere in northern Italy, the chestnut was known as l'albero del pane--the bread tree--both because bread could be made from chestnut flour and because it was, sometimes literally (its wood being as valuable as its fruit), the staff of life.

Chestnuts were eaten fresh, either boiled or roasted or stewed in milk or wine. Dried, they went into soups or were reconstituted by steeping in water with fennel flowers and salt--the water blackens and this yields a Genoese expression for a treacherous person or affair, caeu cumme l'aegua de ballettu, "dark like chestnut water"--or were popped plain into the mouth and chewed, like caramels.

They were also, in Italy more than in France, ground into flour. This was used not only to make bread (usually, but not always, in combination with white flour), but also for noodles and gnocchi, as a polenta-like gruel to be eaten with fresh cheese and as porridge. Chestnut batter was also fried into frittelle or fritters and made into the flat pasta cakes known as testaroli.

In addition, chestnut wood has long been used in the region to make tools, barrels and furniture. It was also raised in the hills above Genoa, between the 16th and 19th centuries, specifically to be turned into charcoal to fuel the many ferrerie or ironworks around Liguria that were under Genoese control.

In the early 19th century, in the Nicois back-country (where Isola is the chestnut capital, and towns like Le Moulinet and Coaraze have annual celebrations of the tree and its fruit), there was even a French government inquiry into the possibility of making sugar from chestnuts. This apparently proved impractical--but the chestnut does, indirectly, provide another sweetener on both sides of the border: chestnut honey. This is an unusual and quite delicious product, not very sweet at all but rich and full-bodied, with a pleasant bitterness.

The chestnut harvest begins in Liguria around mid-October and lasts for about two weeks. It is followed by a second harvest--of the dried chestnut leaves, which are used as winter bedding for cows. The traditional method of processing chestnuts was labor-intensive, and, perforce, a community project. Ten or 12 pounds of chestnuts at a time were placed in heavy sacks, then the sacks were laid out on the ground and two people beat each one with chestnut-wood staves to crack the shells--striking exactly 40 blows (some say 42) apiece, according to the farmers in one village I visited, for fewer won't do the job and more will crush the meat as well as the shells.

Next, the chestnuts were taken to a free-standing building called a seccatoio, or drying place (seccaeso in Genovese). Here they were spread out on an elevated alderwood grill, high above a slow fire of chestnut, alderwood or dried heather roots, and smoke-dried for hours, as farmers and their friends and neighbors waited patiently, gossiping and eating. (That the process was frustratingly slow may be gleaned from the term for chestnut-drying, seccatura, which is also slang for nuisance or tedium.)

After the chestnuts had dried, everyone gathered around to shell them and pick them over. The wormy or rotten ones were set aside for the pigs, and the rest were either stored in dried form or sent to a mill to be turned into flour. (According to an anonymous booklet called "Per Selve, per Campi: La Vegetazione tra Natura e Storia," published in Varese Ligure, there was also a method of conserving chestnuts for many months in a fresh state--but, notes the text, "The secret . . . is one that some people know but nobody will reveal.")

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