9. Chestnuts everywhere
San Romano is a small village in Tuscany approximately 500
meters above sea level; basically it is a village in the Apennines.
In this region of Italy, the hills and mountains are dotted
with chestnut trees.
Most of the people in the village owned plots of land filled
with chestnut trees. Each year these patches of land would be prepared for the
My family owned several plots up in the higher hills above
the village and a few plots along the old walking road that lead to the “autostrada”.
Each year, my father and I would prepare these plots for chestnuts harvesting.
Before any of the chestnuts would fall from each tree, we
would clear any type of brush under each chestnut tree thus allowing us to see
where the chestnuts would fall. Clearing involved using several tools, a wood
rake or “rastello”, il “pennato” and “la falce”.
The wood rake we made ourselves and it was always a fun
project. Depending on the use for the rake, we would design teethes for
specific jobs. Here they would be longer and further apart in order to clear
out large vegetation. Il pennato was a man’s tool. When I was given my first
pennato, it was basically my sign of manhood. A pennato is a tool used to cut
small wood branches and other wood items. It can be used also to refine a piece
of wood into different shapes. It resembles a machete, but it has a unique
shape. If you look at an eagle sideway, you see the belly going up to the neck
and then to the underside of the beak. This is the shape of a pennato, it has a
belly, a neck and a hook that looks like a beak of a bird. The entire underside
is very sharp including under the neck and beak. The top part is flat and from
the top of the beak it comes straight to the wood handle at the base. The top
is not sharp; on the contrary, it has quite a fat thickness. The pennato is
carried only by men, using the same belt hook I described in my previous
chapter. It is the same hook used to hold the scythe, but since the scythe could also be used by women, the
pennato was the tool of choice used strictly by men for many different chores.
Men in the village would always be carrying the pennato on their belt hook
situated directly behind at the lower back. Seeing men in town going about
their business with the pennato on their backs always reminded me of the old
West and cowboys carrying guns.
tool would be the “falce”, the scythe; this tool would be carried by women, but
not on their backs. Women did not wear pants and therefore would not have a
belt and the hook to hang it on. They would simply carry the scythe and use it
to clear small brush.
One time my
father wanted to try and burn the small brush under the chestnut tree, but picking
the chestnuts became such dirty job from the blacken ground that he never used
that method again.
usually the harvest month for chestnuts.
chestnut trees are quite large and resemble oak trees, but with larger leaves. During
the spring and summer the chestnut tree blossoms with thousands of “cardi”. The
“cardo” is a round ball with sharp
spikes shooting out in all directions resembling a porcupine. The cardi start
out green and many are bunched together on the many tree branches. As they
ripe, they turn yellow and during late September, early October, they split open
exposing the brown chestnuts. When fully ripe the chestnut falls out on to the
ground. Unfortunately 75% to 85% of the times the cardo falls right along with
that all of the chestnuts have fallen to the ground, my father would assemble the
family and the work would begin.
many large burlap bags and “grembiali”, we would start picking chestnuts from
the ground one by one. The “grembiale” (note: when I end an Italian word with “i”,
it refers to many, ending in “e” refers to one) was made of burlap and the use
resembles the pouch of a kangaroo.
grembiale had strings so it could be securely tied to our back, and an open
pouch in front. Picking chestnuts required dexterity and no gloves were ever
used, so along with the chestnuts came the many painful stings caused by the prickly
points of the fallen cardi.
grembiale was full, the content would be transferred into a burlap bag. Once
full, we would tie the end and carry it to the “metato”.
is a stone building specifically built and designed to dry chestnuts. Our
family had two structures as metati, one was in the middle of the village and
the other was near our vineyards and fields. The size of these metati was
approximately twenty feet by twenty feet square.
from where the chestnuts were picked, we would carry the burlap bags to the
had a dirt floor at the base and a second floor made with round wooden poles
approximately half inch or less apart. To get to the second floor, we used a
wooden ladder that leaned against the only upper floor opening. This opening
was approximately three feet by three feet with a wooden door that could be
opened or closed. On the second floor there was a section of the floor that
could be removed from the base.
carried the heavy burlap bags on our back by using a bardella, we would
carefully walk up the ladder to the upper opening, open the burlap bag and dump
all of the chestnuts inside onto the wooden poles.
would repeat daily until all of the chestnuts were collected.
was full of festivities. I always looked forward to making the “mondine” or
roasted chestnuts. My father would make a big fire in the fireplace; pull out
the pan used for the mondine and start roasting. We would all sit around the
fire, talk, tell stories and used needles to pull out the thousands of prickles
stuck in our hands from the day’s work.
The pan had holes
at the base and a very long wooden handle, over five feet. Chestnuts would be
placed over the fire to roast and then with a special twist of the pan-handle,
my father would turn all of the chestnuts as if flipping pancakes. This was an
art that someday would be passed on to me and my brother.
chestnuts would turn dark and many would actually peel by the twisting action. It
was time to gather around, peel the rest and eat them along with some good
“mondine”, were my favorites; but chestnuts could be boiled, called “ballocciori”
or boiled after dried and peeled, called “trullore”. Trullore were delicious,
but could only be made after the entire process was finished and the chestnuts
were peeled and dried.
also the chestnut “polenta”, and “necci”. Once the chestnuts were dried and
peeled, we would take them to the nearest place capable of grinding them into flour.
It was with this flour that polenta and necci were made. Necci were similar to
flat Mexican tortias made on special flat tools. Once cooked, we would add
ricotta and sugar, rolled them and eat them.
If I close
my eyes, I can still taste them.
So, each day
we would continue loading chestnuts inside the upper floor of the metato. When
completely finished, we would make a very large fire inside on the base dirt
floor, right in the center of the room. This fire would be maintained daily for
about two weeks.
From time to
time, my father would climb inside the upper floor and check to see if the
chestnuts were ready and fully dried. Once ready, the fire would be put out and
the base dirt floor completely cleaned. The next day, as set by appointment,
Mario would come with his peeling machine equipment and set up just outside the
metato. My father would go under the wooden poles floor removable section and
with help from two or three other men, usually my grandfather Christoforo and
uncle Lino, they would use poles to push the section open.
we could hear the gush of chestnuts falling down to the cleaned dirt floor. At
this point, the chestnuts would be picked up by using "corbelli" and loaded inside the peeling
machine. The corbello is a tall round basket and since the chestnuts would be piled on the floor, they would be easily scooped into the corbello and dumped into the machine.
This was a
process that required six or seven people to operate efficiently, so we would
take turns among all of the cousins. We all helped each other’s and no one ever
had to hire labor outside from Mario, the machine owner and operator.
chestnuts were peeled, women would gather them and placed them on wooden tools
called “ bassoie”.
was a magnificent wooden tool. It resembled a wedge, rectangular in shape, made
with a single piece of wood. The outer edges were very thin and the base of the
wedge was hollow. It was about three feet long by about one and one half feet
wide. Along the sides it had a ledge that served as handles to maneuver it.
fill the bassoia with peeled chestnuts and with a rolling motion, flip the
entire content over and over. This would remove the “precchie” from the peeled
chestnut. The precchia is a very thin inside cover that even when peeled, remains
attached to the chestnut. The rolling motion separates the precchie from the chestnuts
and after several motions, the precchie fall onto the floor. Here the cleaned
peeled chestnuts are then collected, placed in a burlap bag, and ready for
has told me that it was the chestnut tree that fed people in these Italian
villages during the horrors of World War Two. Here famine was spared.
The bad part
of all this is the fact that the village men cut most of the chestnut trees and
sold the lumber. That is another chapter that is very unique.
one picks chestnuts and those patches of properties that once fed the village
are now overgrown chestnut bushes. It will take many, many years to replace
what once was a wonderful staple instrumental in saving the lives of many.