At first glance, the region of Liguria, a mere slip of land whose whole length is bordered by the sea on Italy’s north west coast, appears to be just and simply that: a coastal region; made up of beautiful beaches, rocky outcrops, cliffs and picturesque hamlets all perched on this arch of land looking out on the Mediterranean sea.
Framing this beautiful coastline however, are high mountains that as you venture inland give way to a mountain landscape that is both unexpected and enchanting. As you leave the coast behind, the olive trees that grace the coastal terraces give way to forests and century old chestnut woods, majestic and durative witnesses to centuries of local, rural heritage. It is exactly on these slopes, that in the past, the local mountain communities developed an existence based on farming and agriculture in this difficult landscape. The majority of their livelihood, in fact, revolved around one type of tree: the Chestnut.
For over seven centuries Chestnut trees have sustained and accompanied the lives of the inland dwellers in the Ligurian Mountains. Up until the Second World War they were at the centre of the rural economy here in the Apennine mountains, so much so that the lives of the local people to a great extent depended on the bounty of the chestnut harvest each year.
A profound and deep-rooted culture has evolved around the chestnut tree, embedded in each generation to the point where the chestnut tree has been honored in local dialect to be simply called, l’erbu, or ‘the tree’.
The tiny villages, terraced land and stone mule tracks that can still be found on the mountainsides are a poignant testament to the harsh existence and strong temperament of the local people who were able to transform a difficult landscape into a place of immense beauty and new life.
The way of the land
The Ligurian landscape does not have large, flat plains that allow for the arable farming of grains- even less so in the mountainous inland area- so the scant amount of wheat that was grown on the narrow terraced land was used mainly to enrich the more abundant chestnut flour then used to produce homemade pasta and bread. Furthermore, for the simple fact that chestnut trees flourish on shady, north-facing slopes of the mountainside, these trees were an ideal alternative crop for land that would otherwise be of little worth agriculturally. Chestnut trees were in fact grown in our valley like in the rest of Liguria predominantly for the harvesting and selling, or for the drying and grinding into flour of the Chestnuts.
Over time, Chestnut trees became loyal and faithful life companions to the locals; aside from the sweet nuts that were the principal interest of the farmers, around the Chestnut tree revolved an intricate production cycle that bore many other important resources for the rural communities. Annual pruning of new shoots gave precious flexible wood that was used to make all manner of weaved baskets and containers, whilst all other wood from pruning became precious fire wood. In the autumn the fallen dried leaves were collected and stored for winter bedding for the animals, whilst preparing and maintaining clear ground around the trees in the woodland, making harvesting and collection of the Chestnuts easier and providing the perfect setting for wild mushrooms such as Porcini to grow. Chestnut wood being notoriously strong, water-resistant and durative was also the first choice for use both in the construction of furniture, beams and planks when building houses and out-buildings, plus stakes for fencing and numerous utensils for use in the house and on the farm.
However it is the Chestnut’s deep-rooted culinary heritage which the whole of the rural culture revolved around. The versatility of the chestnut has decidedly helped to contribute in forming the what today can only be described as a rich gastronomic patrimony. Pasta, bread, pies, desserts and many other specialities deriving from chestnuts are both a testament and symbol of the rural way of life in the Ligurian mountain communities.
Chestnuts from Harvest to Table
Chestnut harvest is between late October and early November. The chestnuts were collected and then laid out on a wooden, slatted floor in a small hut. The attic space held the harvested chestnuts, whilst below was a room where a small central fire was lit on a base of stone. The fire was gently and constantly tended to, allowing a constant and controlled heat to pass through the slatted ‘roof’ and slowly dry-out the chestnuts. The fire was kept alight day and night and the chestnuts were carefully turned to allow them to dry out completely uniformly. The whole process took about a month and experience and patience was needed to create the right level of heat from the fire, achieved by covering the coals with a layer of slow-burning chestnut skins from the previous years’ harvest .
Once the Chestnuts were thoroughly dry, the outer skin of the dried fruit needed to be removed. This was achieved through the ‘Battitura‘. The chestnuts were placed in large sacks and brought down over a wooded block, smashing off the dried outer skins. The ‘Vagliatura‘ then followed to separate the chestnuts from the detached skins. The clean, dried chestnuts were then checked over and graded based on quality and appearance: the best were destined to be sold or stored for the winter, the broken, mis-shapen or rotten were divided to be used, based on the quality, for home use or animal feed.
Each farm house had a large wooden trunk called a banche`, which had different compartments. It was used to store whole dried chestnuts and other grain, which were then taken a sack at a time to the water mill to be milled into flour. The flour was then kept in the other compartments and used to mostly to prepare homemade pasta.
Pasta has taken pride of place on the tables of Ligurians for centuries, confirmed not only by numerous historical accounts but also by the fact that today pasta continues to be an important part of each meal in Liguria.
Known in some areas as Pasta Matta, Pasta made with Chestnut flour is still greatly appreciated today, and although traditionally it belonged to the humble cucina rustica it has become increasingly more renowned as a gourmet alternative to traditional pasta.
In Liguria chestnut pasta was made into a few traditional shapes, the most famous of which being trofie (thick, little corkscrew shapes) and picagge (long ribbons). There are of course many well-loved local variations too, differing in shape and size. From the end of the 1700s when potatoes became an integral part of the diet in rural areas, a variation on traditional gnocchi evolved using pomi di terra and Chestnut flour, a delicious dish which is still an important component to the Ligurian culinary repettoire.
Traditionally, Chestnut pasta was simply served with cremma de laete, the cream that rose to the top of the milk a few hours after milking. A sprinkling of grated furmaggetta, a local cow’s milk cheese, was added when available, to complete the dish. Another local sauce which is still often used to accompany chestnut pasta is Pesto. This world-famous sauce is native to Liguria and works well with the inherent sweetness that Chestnut flour gives to the pasta.
Chestnut pasta is increasingly eaten with a variety of sauces whose ingredients take further advantage of it’s characteristic sweet taste and provide the gourmet cook a myriad of flavorsome possibilities with this special product.
Other Traditional Dishes with Chestnuts
Chestnuts from these mountains were also used in many other types of sweet and savory dishes. Castagnaccio, for example is a flat, chestnut pancake that is cooked in the oven, and eaten in slices.
The batter made with chestnut flour, milk, water, olive oil, raisons, and pine nuts. This soft disc with it’s naturally sweet chestnut flavor is still a popular homemade favorite.
Puta , However is a type of Polenta made with chestnut flour and water. It was cooked in a large pan over the fire and then eaten with Ricotta cheese , milk or other condiments depending on the local tradition. Riso, Latte e Castagne is at it’s simplest a sweet soup made by cooking dried chestnuts and rice in milk. Castagne Grasse – literally ‘fat chestnuts’, was a rustic pork dish in which the dried whole chestnuts were cooked in a stew using pork off-cuts. The soupy liquid from this dish called Zutta, was often eaten in its own right, with garlicky, dry, crusty bread.
In local dialect there are also many names given to the different ways of cooking chestnuts which are still in use today:
Rustie: ‘roasted’: fresh chestnuts cooked on an open fire
Pee: ‘peeled’: fresh, whole, boiled and peeled Chestnuts
Balletti: ‘Little balls’: Fresh whole chestnuts cooked in their skins
Vegette: ‘Oldies’: Dried whole chestnuts, cooked in their skins
The Importance of Chestnuts in Liguria
It is hard to describe how important the role of Chestnut trees were in the lives of the local mountain communities. It is a story that should be told by those who lived their lives each day among them: those who planted them, pruned them, took care of them, harvesting their fruit each year. Those who dried, cleaned and sorted them and those who brought them to be milled. Those who ate them for most of their lives, cooked them as they knew how, and prayed for a bountiful harvest. Then there were those who made baskets, spades, cheese presses, bee hives, wine barrels, fence stakes, beams for their houses, planks for their floors, stools, cupboards, bed frames, spoons and ladles from its wood.
Earning a livelihood, on these mountains, which appear so lush and enchanting in their natural beauty, was however a harsh and trying existence. Those who lived here over the centuries, facing days of heavy work and real sacrifice, were consoled by the chestnut trees who accompanied them on their journey thorough life, offering up their sweet fruits to soothe the fatigue and lessen the burden of the hard life they led on the mountainsides.
Chestnut trees were the pillar, the central axis which the whole rural system revolved around. Without them, life on the mountains could not have been possible; life took shape and whole communities flourished because of it. What remains today is a profound culture to which the culinary heritage is an integral part: an extraordinary legacy that is both a valuable patrimony and important part of the Ligurian identity. Together with the century old Chestnut trees- towering and imposing reminders of a bygone era- the taste of this humble and generous fruit is what continues to strengthen our ties to the wilderness and keep alive the rural way of life that we still have so much to learn from.
Original text by Sergio Rossi
Sergio Rossi, il cucinosofo, is a culture and food historian. As director of the Conservatorio delle Cucine Mediterranee di Genova he studies the culinary traditions of the area. He is founder and curator of the Archivio per la Storia dell’Alimentazione Giovanni Rebora, as well as creator and author of the website www.civiltaforchetta.it and of the blog www.ilcucinosofo.it . He lives and works in Liguria, dividing his time between Genoa and the mountains that surround it, investigating local culinary heritage and small artisan producers.