Of the multitude of produce grown in Australia, chestnuts seem to be a rarity. But in Italy they have been a welcome autumnal staple in the diet of the country people for hundreds, possibly thousands, of years. It is said that Pliny, and even Homer (of ‘The Odyssey’, not The Simpsons) mentioned chestnuts. They ripen in the autumn, and can be stored, roasted and eaten through the winter. They can also be made into a kind of flour and used to make sweet treats.
Chestnuts - castagna in Italian - grow on steep slopes, so of course they are ideal for the Amalfi Coast, and in particular for the hills around the village of Scala, which perches high above the Coast. Scala is right next door to the more famous, chic and relatively elegant village of Ravello, famous for its music festival and for being the resort of choice for aristocrats over the decades. But Scala retains the atmosphere of a genuine traditional village, and it is also the location for one of the oldest traditional food festivals of the region: the Festa della Castagna, celebrated in October each year.
|Party time in Scala.|
Venturing up to Scala on the second night of the two-day festa, finding parking was a challenge. But once found high up on one of the switchback roads which form the village, if was but a short toddle down several hundred steps direct to the village piazza, where all the action was. Centre stage - literally - were dozens of enthusiastic village children in traditional dress, the older ones singing and dancing and the younger ones crazily jigging along with their tambourines. Accompanied by a piano accordion and mandolin, they made a fine old din for the crowds of local who had rugged up for the pleasantly chilly autumn evening. This was another side to the Coast, which I’d enjoyed in the height of summer. Two months ago, coming up to Scala was an expedition to find a little shade and coolness under its trees. Possibly they are chestnut trees. I’ll have to check.
|The cooks at work.|
In the piazza several temporary food stalls were cooking up a storm, serving several versions of meat on a roll: spicy sausages, pork and spinach were featured. The pork was, rather unusually, cooked inside a big loaf of bread. But the pièce de résistance (if I can mix my languages here) was the stall selling a huge variety of chestnut-paste filled pastries. After all, this is a chestnut festa! Scala has a tradition of wonderful chestnut pastries.
|The pastry mother-lode.|
Or, of course, you can collect the shiny, plump nuts direct from the tree and cook your own. According to this blog, this is how it is done:
Chestnuts can be eaten fresh, either roasted or boiled. Try the following recipe for boiled chestnuts: remove the outer hard skin and put them in a saucepan with enough water to cover, add a bay leaf and a sprig of green fennel and boil them for about forty minutes. Leave them to cool, peel off the soft skin and enjoy! If you omit the herbs you can then mash the boiled chestnuts to make chestnut purée to for desserts or to make gnocchi di castagne (chestnut dumplings).
It seems that Scala is not alone in celebrating the advent of chestnut season. All across Italy, towns come out for their own local versions of the festa della castagna.
|Festa della Castagna|