Looking out of the windows of Le Mura our Tuscan country home the sweet chestnut clad mountains with their stones villages snuggling between the trees dominates the near landscape: lush and green in summer and bare skeletons in winter. The woods seem as ancient and wild as the hills themselves but the chestnut forest are a testament to the cultivation of an earlier civilisation. The trees were planted because chestnuts were the staple diet of mountain populations in the western part of Eurasia for millennia.
It seems that the Greeks introduced the Castanea Sativa in Europe and later the Romans and the mediaeval monastic orders propagated them. In Italy the chestnuts were mainly ground into flour. Sadly the last commercial mill closed just before our arrival in the village over ten years ago. Now only a handful of growers produce this wonderful flour. A more poignant tragedy as this is a thoroughly modern product perfect for those with gluten intolerance or healthy eaters because it is low in fat and calories and contains less carbohydrates than regular white flour. This wonderful product was even endorsed in The Guardian by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. The locals still guard this gastronomic tradition and our village friends introduced us to necci, crêpes made simply from the mellow sweet chestnut flour and water, cooked over a flame or open fire between two heavy forged cast-iron plates called testi, passed from generation to generation. The older the testi the more proofed they are and the better the necci. Some families even still use terracotta discs lined with chestnut leaves. Local winter festivals would be incomplete without these mouth watering delicacies which can be served either as a savoury or with a sweet filling. (Recipes, I promise to follow in another post.)
Our woodman and friend, Antonio is one of the few still producing a small amount of flour in the traditional way and so I was more than delighted when he suggested that I follow the course of the chestnut from tree to flour.
Part one – Mid October. Gathering sweet chestnuts.
I had my first rendezvous with Antonio on a damp morning in mid October. Finding the exact meeting point deep in the wood adjoining our land was in itself quite a challenge. The old chestnut trees were gothic and I almost felt I was walking in an enchanted forest penetrating much deeper than I normally do. Eventually I heard the distant rumble of an engine and hone in on Antonio, his brother in law Gino and his mother Maria Francesca, literally hovering up the prickly cupules that contain the nuts. After ingesting the chestnuts the machine that looks like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a triffid spits out the prickly cupules. Antonio hoovers every corner of his land: no cupule escapes. The chestnuts are then stored in sacks.
If you wander around Northern Tuscany you’ll see little stone two storey buildings too small to be houses (even if some of them have been converted by foreign residents). Each floor has its own entrance and there are no stairs, which is why they’re built into the side of a bank. This is the place where the chestnuts are dried. The process takes about a month. On the ground floor of the Metato a special fire is prepared using very well seasoned chestnut wood and the discarded dry skins of the previous year’s chestnuts. The fire mustn’t produce flames. The first floor is where the chestnuts are laid. Antonio for the full month comes twice a day. First thing in the morning at around 7 and 12 hours later before supper. He checks the fire on the ground floor, it must just smoulder. He may add another piece of wood if needed. Then he stirs the chestnuts on the floor above. Even 50 years ago the Metato for the month of October was the centre of village life. The fire would provide warmth for everybody and stories were told. Northern Tuscany, Garfagnana in particular, is famous for its fairy tales and legends. Sadly now everybody sits in front of the telly or computer screen.
At the end of the drying month in mid December I met up again with Antonio at the Metato, which is wedged between the woods at the edge of the village and a small plot of land full of chickens. When I arrive Antonio, Maria Francesca, his Father Gianvi and small son Giovanni are already hard at work feeding the chestnuts into a machine that breaks the chestnuts’ now crisp skins leaving the clean dry fruit ready to be taken to the mill. Gianvi, who loves tradition, demonstrates how the chestnuts were cleaned before they got the machine: he puts a few pounds of chestnuts in a flabby canvas bag and holding the top with both hands starts bashing it against a stump with all his strength. A few minutes later he showed me the content of the bag. The brown calybiums were broken; the fruits also were damaged, then he blew away the dry skins. A back breaking slow job, the machine produces a much neater job in a fraction of the time.
Antonio keeps climbing on the side of the machine to put the chestnuts in a funnel on the top. The dried chestnuts are pushed into a big pipe to the lower level where they’re collected in buckets.
Between the shell and the chestnut there is a fluff that now floats freely in the air. Gino replaces him and we take in turns to push more chestnuts in the pipe.
The ventolaccio which is the waste, is piled up. It will be stored for next year when it will be needed to make the smouldering fire.
Antonio puts the chestnuts in bags ready for the mill. There’s not very much time for lunch, the job must be finished before dusk.
Part 3 – At the Mill.
A few days later on a nasty damp morning I met up with Antonio in the valley . His van is loaded with the bags of chestnuts. Like all good Italians, we down a coffee before setting off for Fabbriche di Vallico, a village in the mountains on the edge of the Garfagnana where there is an old recently restored mill. It’s all very green and wet. We unload the sacks, there don’t seem to be very many for all that effort. The owner of the mill greets us. He’s very pleased I came with Antonio as he is very proud of his mill and rightly so.
Running beside the mill is a stream but the water sadly isn’t used to power the stones as if there isn’t enough water it becomes a problem, therefore Fosco the owner bought a small electric engine. He says he needs very little electricity to run the mill. I hope one day he will go back to water power or at least have a dual system. There are four grinding stones in the mill. Two of them are for chestnuts, one for corn, the forth one is resting now. Today Fosco has a problem, a few chestnut, not entirely dry have caramelised and if the residue is not removed they can damage the stones. Fosco hoists one stone and very patiently chisels the dry molasses. He can now put the stone back and restarts the milling. Opposite there is another stone grinding corn for polenta.
Antonio’s flour is now ready and Fosco is collecting and bagging it. We thank Fosco and drive back to the valley.
A few days later I am in Antonio’s house. Maria Francesca presents me with a bag of chestnut flour. In the village everybody has reserved their bag, the quantity produced is very small so there is nothing left.
The flour has a wonderful taste that is in my opinion enhanced by being dried over a natural fire. It seems however the French don’t like the smoky flavour and require the chestnuts to be dried using electric ovens. Antonio’s flour is all produced and consumed locally, lets hope that his young son will continue when the time comes to make the flour and perhaps even reopen the village mill.