All of Italy is in full harvest mode: there’s olive picking, grape gathering, truffle routing, and chestnuts roasting on open fires. I was there for all of that at one time—but not this year. This year I’m in Florida where the only harvesting going on—as far as I know—involves sea turtles, and that’s pretty much against the law.
…on an open fire or not.
This is what the ground looked like under the chestnut trees in the Castelli Romani, the hill towns outside of Rome, one October some years ago.
And this is how you can buy those chestnuts, right off the road, freshly gathered into a heap.
These are tough nuts to crack. And if you don’t pierce them before they hit the fire or boiling water, you have a wicked, messy explosion on your hands.
There are two edible varieties of the Italian chestnut. One variety, the castagna, grows in wild abundance along country and mountain roads and can be roasted, canned, or boiled. Like little porcupines tumbling out of trees, the spiny burrs of these chestnuts break open to reveal three polished brown nuts nestled inside.
The other edible variety is the highly prized marrona which grows on trees that are cultivated and guarded like family jewels, bearing a single, much larger and fatter nut used in making the delectable confection called marron glace’.
My Italian friends tell me of a third variety referred to as bastardini, so called because the little bastards won’t open no matter what you do to them.
If you know your history, the word Sabine might bring to mind rape and mayhem. It was nothing like that the time I went to the Sabine Hills to the town of Percile for the Sagra delle Castagne, the annual chestnut festival. The air was crisp and smoky and crackling with excitement. (In Italy, the harvest of anything, from a tree nut to an asparagus spear, calls for attention—and equal doses of reverence and merriment).
The main piazza filled up quickly on that cool autumn day, villagers and visitors all crowding around giant-sized pans full of chestnuts set over raging fires. This was a public roasting like no other. Several townsmen holding long metal tools flipped and stoked with all the seriousness of the Vatican Swiss Guards—theirs obviously being an honored appointment— until the nuts were almost completely charred. At this point, a large jug of white wine was thrown over the pan, creating an aromatic flambe’ and finishing up the task of opening up every last nugget. After being cooled slightly, the chestnuts were poured into paper bags and handed out to the festival-goers along with a small bottle of fruity, slightly fizzy red wine.
A warm, sweet meaty chestnut followed by a sip of the perfect complimentary wine, in the middle of chestnut country is a simple thing—and one of the reasons I love Italy so much. You honor the seasons, you anticipate the harvests, and celebrate what’s in front of you at the moment. Like all things in the world, it’s impermanent, but at that moment it’s a wonderful thing.