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 chestnut harvesting.
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.
The third 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.
October was usually the harvest month for chestnuts.
Producing 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 it.
When assured that all of the chestnuts have fallen to the ground, my father would assemble the family and the work would begin.
Armed with 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.
The 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.
When the 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”.
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.
Depending from where the chestnuts were picked, we would carry the burlap bags to the nearest metato.
The metato 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.
As we 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.
This process would repeat daily until all of the chestnuts were collected.
Each evening 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.
Soon, the 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 table wine.
Roasted chestnuts, “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.
There was 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 tortillas 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.
Once 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.
As the chestnuts were peeled, women would gather them and placed them on wooden tools called “bassoie”.
The bassoia 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.
Women would 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 crushing.
My father 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.
Today, no 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.