Before coming to Italy, my only experience with chestnuts was seeing them at Christmas time on the streets of New York, literally "roasting on an open fire" to borrow the words of the old song. I never much cared for them, my culinary tastes in those days being very much influenced by appearances and they always looked like blackened little morsels too hot to touch and not very appetizing looking. I do remember enjoying seeing the vendors on the streets and the smells that filled the air were a very pleasant part of the festive holiday season, along with the arrival of wreaths on people's doors and the strings of colored lights on the houses in my neighborhood.
In Italy, chestnut trees are everywhere. We first encountered them in Perugia, in the garden next to our apartment. Giant, mature trees, the leaves long and slender, in clusters, the fruit first appeared towards the end of summer as fuzzy, chartreuse-colored balls, like decorations on the Christmas tree. As the days grew cooler, the light green leaves turned brown, rusty, curled and dried and the castagne, the chestnuts grew big and full. Eventually the chartreuse color also turned brown and the spiky, fuzzy balls fell from the trees, the ground littered with them, and they split open, revealing the dark honey-colored nugget that is the fruit, the chestnut, inside. Bob and I, not knowing any better, gathered a bunch of them, found a recipe on the internet and tried roasting them in our oven. But yuck! They didn't taste very good and all my previous suspicions were confirmed. Then we found out that these were "horse chestnuts" and not the edible kind! How were we to know! Later, in the streets of Perugia vendors appeared, selling roasted chestnuts, the same smell filling the air, the same dark bits roasting before our eyes. We bought a small bag, tasted the fruit and it was a whole different experience! I can't actually say I fell in love with the taste, but I suspect it might be something that you develop a liking for. But I did enjoy them more than I thought I would.
Mostly I love the trees! I love the way the colors change through the season, the really rough and prickly outer shell and the way it cracks open to reveal the fruit inside, all shiny, golden brown like a little hunk of wood that has been carved into a ball and polished to a fine sheen, like tiny pieces of art!
Chestnuts on the ground
Today we were invited by Mirella and her husband Adriano to gather chestnuts with them in the mountains near Lago di Garda. Always eager to go along with our Italian friends when they invite us, we dressed warmly and wore our hiking shoes, as Mirella suggested. Adriano's cousin has a working farm in the mountains where they raise cows and make cheeses. Nestled on the hills around Monte Baldo, they pointed out a stone house high on the ridge above where they take the cows to be milked and where they make the cheese we later sampled. In the photos it looks like a little fortress, complete with rounded tower and window slits.
We left their car at the house and continued further up the mountain in a 4-wheel drive jeep and stopped at a clearing where the floor of the forest was densely covered with the fuzzy castagne we were hunting. Mirella instructed us as to which ones to gather and which to leave behind, looking for little holes that signaled the presence of "guests" (ospiti, in Italian) - meaning pests that had bored their way into the fruit. It was kind of hard on my back to keep bending over to pick them and up and not always easy to tell if there was a "guest" inside. I was sure that many of the ones I gathered would probably have to be rejected later and I wasn't altogether wrong.
Here's Mirella, gathering chestnuts (castagne)
It was fun though and afterwards we walked along a forest path and came upon some guys who were hang gliding over the edge of this mountain towards the lake below. Yesterday it had rained and today it was still a bit cloudy and a layer of fog hung over the lake, the tops of the mountain on the other side poking up through it, wearing this layer of white like a fluffy scarf wrapped around its neck.
Monte Baldo, engulfed in fog
When they had gathered enough, Adriano and their daughter Lisa drove back to the house and Mirella, Bob and I walked the short distance enjoying being in the woods, the tall pine trees above us and the changing colors of fall all around, autumn leaves underfoot, sidestepping the muddy patches and cow pies. We talked about different foods of the area, she asked what we liked, what we ate in the U.S., what the specialties of the Veneto and also just walked along in silence partly just enjoying the day and partly just taking a break from the effort of communicating and trying to understand each other. I have to admit by the end of a day like this we are pretty wiped out from thinking in another language and working hard to understand. Mirella is very patient with us and tries very hard to make sure we get what she is saying and encourages us to ask her to clarify if we do not. We have learned a lot from her patience and eagerness to share her knowledge of the secrets of this particular area she was born in and knows so well.
Autumn leaves in the forest
Back at the house we ate a little sandwich of fresh, homemade porchetta (yummm) on a nice crispy roll and a glass of wine and were given two hunks of the fresh cheese Adriano's cousins' cows produce. Not to mention munching on fresh apples that grew on the trees scattered all throughout their property. Mirella and Adriano put a large helping of the castagne we had gathered into a bag for us to take home along with instructions on how to reject the bad ones (put them in water and the bad ones will rise to the top! The ones that sink are good); how to slit the tops and roast them in the oven and how to spread them out and let them dry a bit. We hope we remember everything they told us!
They dropped us off at our apartment well after dark and we were quite exhausted! We didn't even have dinner, just a glass of wine and a piece of my "cockeyed" chocolate cake. I fell asleep on the sofa and then poured myself into bed. Once again I have to say, I can't believe we have to say goodbye to these wonderful people who have been so generous of their time and their lives and we will miss them all very much when the times comes - all too soon - to leave!
Apples tree at Adriano’s cousins’ home in the mountains near Verona
Rosemary e Robert