Monday, 19 October 2009

From our woods

by Francesca

picking chestnuts

Our little northern Italian village is set in the midst of dense forests, and we’ve always tried to teach our young family to be aware and mindful when they walk through the woods. Not only to appreciate how rich and complex an environment it is, and how important it is to respect it, but also how, if they’re patient and keep their eyes open, they can find any number of natural healthy and free treats.

This summer, in fact, we made a conscious effort to learn together the basics of foraging, trying to pick and gather everything from the woods that we knew was edible (and good!). Among other things, we harvested wild cherries and strawberries (here), elderberries for jam and other Mediterranean berries to eat fresh, including the unusual strawberry-tree berry - which, confusingly, isn’t at all the same thing as a strawberry (here). We’ve also picked and salted capers (here), and have harvested borage (here). And we’re constantly bringing home herbs to use in cooking, like rosemary, sage, oregano, calamint, and laurel (here and here).

chestnuts 2

These days, as the carpet of brown fall leaves grows thicker and thicker on the forest floor, we’ve started gathering another of nature’s gifts. In the silence of the woods, we can hear them fall from the trees and hit the ground with a thump. They’re chestnuts, dropping from the chestnut trees that grow here and there in the woodlands, a sound that means autumn (fall!) in our woods.

chestnut hut

Until about forty years ago, this sound was eagerly awaited hereabouts. Back then, when foods in this remote part of the world were all locally-grown and the farmland on the terraced hillsides was too poor to grow grains, chestnuts were one of the main source of carbohydrates. They were also an economic mainstay, and saved many rural communities from poverty. Our elderly neighbors still remember carefully combing through the autumn woods to gather the chestnuts, then bringing them to one of the stone drying huts that still dot hillsides. After drying the chestnuts over a wood fire, they’d grind some into flour to make pasta, lasagna, polenta, breads; others they'd just cook in milk, creating a simple meal. Chestnuts fed local families for months at a time.


Chestnuts are still a central part of the cuisine in many parts of northern Italy. They’ve also been rediscovered recently by nutritionists for their impressive dietary qualities: they’re primarily made up of complex carbohydrates, they’re gluten-free and high in fiber, and unlike all other nuts, they’re very low in fats (the most comprehensive table I found on chestnut nutrition is in Italian, here).


Nowadays, the most common use of chestnut flour in Italian cuisine is castagnaccio, a very simple sweet flat bread that is fragrant with Mediterranean flavours.


500 grams chestnut flour
pine nuts, a handful
raisins, a handful
olive oil

Mix the chestnut flour and a pinch of salt with enough water to create a liquid batter. Pour it into a pizza pan greased with olive oil. Sprinkle pine nuts, raisins, and a little rosemary over the top. Bake for 20-30 minutes in a hot oven until it forms a crust. (There are many regional variations on the castagnaccio recipe.)


Fresh chestnuts can also be roasted in a special skillet with holes in the bottom (see photo), over a high gas flame. Just make sure to make a cut across the shells before you roast your chestnuts, so the steam can escape, and to peel them while they're still hot, or the shells will stick to the nuts. When we come back from our walks in the chilly autumn woods, roasted chestnuts that we've just gathered make the perfect warming and healthy snack.

Do you find chestnuts in your part of the world? What else do you gather in your local forests and fields?

If you'd like to try chestnuts or chestnut flour, but live in an area where they are not available, here is a US producer (their website has also many, many recipes).