Sunday, October 2, 2011

Chestnut time

It's October and in Cervinara that means only one thing: chestnuts.  This little town is obsessed with everything to do with chestnuts.  Historically, these tasty treats were a main source of income for the people who owned the mountains.  They were also the source of nutrition during hard times when food was scarce.
During World War II, Cervinara , like so many other parts of Italy, suffered real hardships.  People wasted nothing and everything was used up and recycled until it couldn't be used any more.  The residents here used chestnuts in every way imaginable; roasted, boiled with a bay leaf, dried and ground into flour, sweetened and made into a type of marmalade, pureed and even as a replacement or adjunct for pasta.  Now, the chestnuts are more of a seasonal treat that everyone looks forward to but no one relies on for much more than pocket money and an after dinner delight. 
Harvesting chestnuts is a tricky business.  First, the underbrush has to be cleared away.  In September, controlled fires burn away the tall grasses and dried leaves that have accumulated under the trees.  Then, beginning in October, the actual harvest begins.  The trees that have been pendulous with chestnut "ricci" (the spiny coverings that protect the fruit), begin to drop their burdens.  The ricci litter the ground and become a real hazard to anyone not wearing good heavy shoes.  The men who harvest the chestnuts gather up the ricci and using heavy gloves to protect their hands, they open them up and pull out the three or four chestnuts that are nested inside.  Without gloves, your hands immediately become a sore and bloody mess because the ricci are so sharp and pointy.  The chestnuts get loaded into huge bags, either burlap or a kind of plastic mesh, and are taken down the mountain in tractors.
Talking to some of the old folks here, they remember the harvest before there were the tractors and other mechanical help.  Women used to handle this hard work, trudging up the mountain (before the road was paved) and into the chestnut groves.  They would gather up the nuts into huge bundles (using heavy sheeting material as their packs.)  Then they would heave the hundred pound bundles onto their heads and walk down the mountain again to deliver their burdens to the consortium.  I can't imagine this kind of heavy labor, done for pennies a day. 
Back in those days, the family here would gather up all the chestnuts and put them into an upstairs room for curing.  The cousins talk about this room being so deep in chestnuts that the kids would climb up the outside ladder and jump into the room through the window, covering themselves completely with the ruddy colored nuts.  The image I have in my head is that of one of those inflatable cages filled with nerf balls that kids love to jump in at McDonald's.  This was the Cervinara version of that favorite childhood activity.
Now, we barely go up to the mountain, except to enjoy a bit of a walk when the weather  is nice.  We lease out the concession to Gianluca and he and his crew handle the prep work and the actual harvest.  Gianluca comes to our door with a sack of chestnuts for us and the rest are sold at market.  No one has  the burden of carrying those bundles on their heads anymore, thank goodness!  While the work is certainly easier, the folks here still look forward to these autumn delicacies with the same eager expectation.