Last weeks our cousins came down from Milan to check out their piece of the mountain. We enjoyed several days of good company, nice hikes and great food. Climbing up onto their property on a windy day, we were bombarded by dropping chestnuts, still in their spiny shells.
There were lots of women up there when we were and believe me, it was clear what dilettantes we were! We strolled from spot to spot, looking for easy picking and mostly leaving the ricci behind. When we'd filled a backpack we headed back to the road for our ride home. But these women were there all day, filling bag after bag, hoisting them into the trucks or tractors that were awaiting, and even cooking the noon meal on the mountain.
There are huts and primitive lean-tos that have sheltered the mountain workers for generations. During rainy days the work doesn't stop and these structures provide some measure of protection from the elements. Cousin Umberto gathered up a nice pile of chestnuts, covered them with leaves and damp grass and lit them on fire. The damp greens created a nice stream of steam that cooked the chestnuts perfectly, right there on the mountain. In wetter weather this would be done in a hut like this.
It's fun to play at being a mountaineer, but I'm pretty sure I wouldn't be able to handle it on a regular basis. There's a saying that you shouldn't curse the farmer with your mouth full, and that goes for the gatherers of all the riches of the mountains. It's easy to criticize or be unappreciative of the laborers who put the food on our tables, but if we just tried doing their work day in and day out I think we would all change our tune.
There are more riches than just the chestnuts at this time of year. It's also the perfect time for mushroom hunting. While I spotted many, my companions were quick to point out that I only have an eye for the poisonous ones! It's a good thing I have nice friends who are eager to share their good fortune with me and we had some yummy funghi to accompany our lunch back home.
This October on the 28th and 29th, there will be another sagra in honor of the chestnut. There will be restaurants opened inside private homes where traditional dishes will be served. There will be desserts based on chestnuts, huge roasting machines and lots of other culinary treats. There will be music and entertainments, parades, flag throwers and drill teams. But most importantly, there will be lots of local chestnuts, not chestnuts imported from Greece as they've had to use the last few years. It's reassuring to know that after an unpleasant interlude, the gold ricci that cover the hillsides of Cervinara are back in strength, just waiting for some hungry and enterprising folks to pick them up and take them home! Buon appetito!