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Breaking Nails in Paradise - What the Locals Do, Chestnut Harvesting

Cristina Pinton

In this agricultural region of Italy harvesting or "la raccolta", whether for the current season's mushrooms, chestnuts, olives, mandarin and clementines or cabbage ... it's all in the family, not just the local farmers who are out there hard at work ... the work of the farmer or "contadino" is the home-front.

On a crisp and sunny Sunday morning my husband and I joined my sister-in-law's husbands family (three brothers and two sisters plus a dozen children) in northwestern Basilicata, near Castelsaraceno, for a day of gathering chestnuts or "castagne." Our drive from Bernalda (eight cars worth of family) was about 70 minutes winding roads through the low rolling hills, past roughly plowed terrain, fields rich with local autumn vegetables as well as abandoned stone farmsteads and bridges. Once we reached the forest protected by the region of Basilicata, called Fieghi-Cerreto, we began our stealthy entrance (through the barbed wire) into the oak-laden forest in search of the riches of the chestnut area. The others in the group were armed with high boots and sneakers, some with protective gloves and all (children included) with pails and sacks for the chestnuts and their spiked hulls called "ricci."

Chestnut Woods

After a 15 minute stroll through the oak, we followed the more experienced gatherers until the leaf cover changed and we'd arrived at our destination. The group spread out along the hills sides. A cool wind brought the laughter with it, from one end of the valley to the other. Kids calling to one another. Adults scoping out their territory with pride and competitive secrecy. With sticks in hand and a good eye, we began the task at kicking away and removing the leafy blanket to reveal the freshly fallen chestnuts- some still in their protective husk while others glistening with dew. Of course kicking the leaf cover meant disturbing the secret and still (and yet bountiful) life of insects - spiders, beetles, worms, larvae, ants, etc. My boots came in handy and a good eye for empty husks.

We didn't have the gloves and thus learned quickly how to avoid the stinging prickles to procure the beautifully smooth nuts nestled inside (my husband, however, ended up digging the prickles out of his fingers for days anyway!) We worked in teams, mainly maintaining family as ally, and after only 1.5 hours of gathering (myself, my husband and mother and father-in-law) we gleaned about 7 kilos of chestnuts.

We proudly made our way back to the car(s) only to find our wait for the rest of the crew longer than expected. Professionals at this event, they went on another 1.5 hours and each couple came back with at least 10 kilos of chestnuts each! Of course a few had the mud marks and scratches to tell a few tales of the adventure, and we were proud of everyone for making it back without losing a child or jacket or their sense of direction.

A week later and we still have a sack of chestnuts on our front porch; we've boiled and baked a couple of kilos of them, and now are scratching our heads with what to do with the rest (chestnut flour crepes and ricotta? Or castagnaccio as the Tuscans would have it? Or chestnut ravioli? If you're cooking, I'm there!).

Breaking Nails in Paradise is a series of articles on Slow Travel. Read more about the author, Cristina Pinton.

© Cristina Pinton, 2011

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