Copyright © Louise Bostock 2007-2013. Please give credit where credit is due.

Friday, 26 October 2007

Castagna season

October 26, 2007 : Nine degrees at 8am, ten degrees at 1pm. And raining.

The chickens of Carmine Superiore are upset. Not just because the rain is drip-drip-dripping in under their neck feathers, or because the mud is getting between their toes. No. The chickens are upset because they are being bombarded by hard round prickly things all day, and, frankly, it pisses them off.

October is castagna season in Piemonte, which means anyone venturing into the woods is likely to be hit on the head by hard round prickly things. And plenty of people are to be seen in the woods at this time of year, bent double, plastic carrier bags in hand, collecting the burnished brown sweet chestnuts while trying to avoid prickles in the paw.

Long before Conad the Barbarian opened his chain of over-priced supermarkets selling cardboard bread, the people of this region survived for much of the winter on foods made from chestnut flour. The chestnuts were boiled, laboriously shelled and then the kernel was ground into flour. It’s still possible to see several massive stone mortars used for just this purpose dotted around Carmine Superiore. And various people in the village still use old recipes to make chestnut-flour cakes topped with chestnut-flavoured icing and dotted with chestnuts. Delicious! Really.

Today, the annual bombardment is the cue for the celebration of the Grande Castagnata in town and village squares across the region. A fire of brushwood is made under a metal tripod six or seven feet high. Hung from the tripod by hand-forged chains is an enormous shallow pan with a perforated bottom (cue an Ealing Comedies comment from my father...) and a very long handle. This is filled with chestnuts and they are roasted in the flames. Every so often, the burliest person present gives a giant heave on the panhandle and the chestnuts jump en masse rather like a pancake on Pancake Day. If the burliest person available is already too drunk to do his duty, there's always a wizened ninety-something in widow's weeds and flowery slippers ready to step in and prove that it's really all in the wrist action.

Many people take this as an opportunity to return to the villages of their birth (or their parents’ birth), and to wear local traditional dress or little hats with feathers in. On tap is last year’s grappa, or perhaps the more sophisticated vin brulee. And there will definitely be a slightly out-of-tune marching band tootling along in the background. To complete the picture, everyone, young and old, local or foreigner, will have black fingers before the day is out from prizing open the scorched chestnut shells to get at the warm, starchy nut inside.

The chickens of Carmine Superiore are upset, but everyone else is enjoying castagna season in Piemonte.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello Louise, What does the comment about your father and Ealing Comedies really mean. You are writing a superb blog and we are looking forward to this continuing in the future. How is Alex getting on at school now, has he settled in completely. The sign of this is when he doesn't even say goodbye for now, when you take him in.

Louise said...

By 'Ealing Comedies comment' I guess I'm thinking of a Carry-On style double-entendre about 'perforated bottoms...

Friday, 26 October 2007

Castagna season

October 26, 2007 : Nine degrees at 8am, ten degrees at 1pm. And raining.

The chickens of Carmine Superiore are upset. Not just because the rain is drip-drip-dripping in under their neck feathers, or because the mud is getting between their toes. No. The chickens are upset because they are being bombarded by hard round prickly things all day, and, frankly, it pisses them off.

October is castagna season in Piemonte, which means anyone venturing into the woods is likely to be hit on the head by hard round prickly things. And plenty of people are to be seen in the woods at this time of year, bent double, plastic carrier bags in hand, collecting the burnished brown sweet chestnuts while trying to avoid prickles in the paw.

Long before Conad the Barbarian opened his chain of over-priced supermarkets selling cardboard bread, the people of this region survived for much of the winter on foods made from chestnut flour. The chestnuts were boiled, laboriously shelled and then the kernel was ground into flour. It’s still possible to see several massive stone mortars used for just this purpose dotted around Carmine Superiore. And various people in the village still use old recipes to make chestnut-flour cakes topped with chestnut-flavoured icing and dotted with chestnuts. Delicious! Really.

Today, the annual bombardment is the cue for the celebration of the Grande Castagnata in town and village squares across the region. A fire of brushwood is made under a metal tripod six or seven feet high. Hung from the tripod by hand-forged chains is an enormous shallow pan with a perforated bottom (cue an Ealing Comedies comment from my father...) and a very long handle. This is filled with chestnuts and they are roasted in the flames. Every so often, the burliest person present gives a giant heave on the panhandle and the chestnuts jump en masse rather like a pancake on Pancake Day. If the burliest person available is already too drunk to do his duty, there's always a wizened ninety-something in widow's weeds and flowery slippers ready to step in and prove that it's really all in the wrist action.

Many people take this as an opportunity to return to the villages of their birth (or their parents’ birth), and to wear local traditional dress or little hats with feathers in. On tap is last year’s grappa, or perhaps the more sophisticated vin brulee. And there will definitely be a slightly out-of-tune marching band tootling along in the background. To complete the picture, everyone, young and old, local or foreigner, will have black fingers before the day is out from prizing open the scorched chestnut shells to get at the warm, starchy nut inside.

The chickens of Carmine Superiore are upset, but everyone else is enjoying castagna season in Piemonte.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Hello Louise, What does the comment about your father and Ealing Comedies really mean. You are writing a superb blog and we are looking forward to this continuing in the future. How is Alex getting on at school now, has he settled in completely. The sign of this is when he doesn't even say goodbye for now, when you take him in.

Louise said...

By 'Ealing Comedies comment' I guess I'm thinking of a Carry-On style double-entendre about 'perforated bottoms...