Italy’s Fall Season and the Prickly Chestnut

Chestnut season in Italy

October and November are chestnut season in Italy

As of the time of this writing, it is verging on prime chestnut season in Italy. This means that you can combine hiking (or at least a walk in the  woods) with chestnut gathering.

Hiking works well with chestnut collecting since it turns out that hiking boots function well for the gathering process. If you don’t want to prick your fingers on the spiky outer covering you need to use  your boots. The proper technique has you rolling the soles of your boots over the chestnut, cracking the spiky shell and breaking the brown shelled nut inside free. It is also not uncommon to find the nut already released from its intimidating outer covering. The joy of this is roughly equivalent to finding a loose pistachio in a bag of stubbornly shelled nuts.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must admit I had never realized what form chestnuts came in. My knowledge limited to Nat King Cole Christmas carols,  or the heavenly sent of caldarroste (roasted chestnuts) vendors around Christmas. The first time I walked in the woods in Italy, I asked what those porcupiney things on the ground were. My Italian friend was incredulous that I could not recognize the chestnut in its natural state.

You the reader, may be a more worldly nut expert and may already have recognized the non Williams Sonoma’d form of the chestnut.  But make sure that your expertise includes  gathering too.

Chestnut season in Italy - the harvest

Where to go to gather chestnuts

During prime chestnut season you have plenty of location choices throughout Italy. And certainly the entire arc of the Alps offers great options. The ideal Italian Alps gathering ground: in the forests at an altitude of 500 – 800 meters. Here, there are tons of chestnuts, just lying around on the ground, it’s as if they grew on trees.

In order to avoid being a criminal (though people have committed crimes for far lesser reasons than the glorious chestnut) be aware that chestnuts that fall on the ground belong to the owner of that ground, so just make sure you are not tromping across someone’s land (or that you have at least obtained permission to avoid being a nut thief).

chestnut season in Italy - roasted chestnuts caldarroste


As a person with mountain interests, you may also be a person with gear interests too. And so you will of course be thrilled that your hiking boots will serve you in the collection process. But you don’t need to limit your self to boots alone. You can also acquire some chestnut specific cooking gear  to prepare your harvest. The fall season brings all sorts of wonderful Italian, recipes for using chestnuts but for the purest form is to roast them on the grill or fireplace ( or less cozy version on the gas cooktop) with your very own chestnut roasting pan.

Chestnut season in Italy - chestnut pan

Should you want to further immerse yourself in the chestnut world, the fall season is filled with sagre di castagne (chestnut festivals). These are sometimes combined with other fall foods like mushrooms. Plus plenty of chestnut themed dishes can be found in restaurants and pastry shops. If you are truly chestnut obsessed, you could dine on chestnuts with each course.

One last chestnut related note. Humans are not alone in enjoying the fruits of the tree. In Italy there some bees that feeds almost exclusively on the chestnut tree. They produce a dark honey with a slightly bitter taste and numerous healing properties, know as miele di castagno, it’s a fantastic topping for yogurt or oatmeal.

Chestnut season in Italy - chestnut honey - miele di castagno

Long live the chestnut. Check out this link then click on Calendario eventi di castagna and Calendario eventi di castagne  for  lists if chestnut festivals  (in Italian).




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The Prevalence of Polenta

Alpine eats in Italy’s mountain shelters



Comfort food year round

If you are planning to take advantage of restoring yourself in the mountains in one of the many rifugi (huts) and you haven’t already, you should develop a taste for polenta. You may have your choice of toppings: melted cheese (usually a Northern Italian type such as taleggio or toma or maybe fontina), slow cooked meat with a gravy type sauce or perhaps mushrooms or sausage. It is a hearty dish and certainly will warm you as it fills you up so it is great mountain food. With it’s comfort food type qualities, you might be inclined to think that it is reserved for winter meals, but Italian rifugi seem to show no such seasonal distinction, important to note as food rules in Italy are quite rigid and some foods, despite their deliciousness, have been relegated to only being offered at specific times of the year .



The above image shows Polenta prep at  one of Italy’s the Sagra del Polentone ( Polenta Festival)  this one held every June in Roccaverono, Piemonte.

Humble origins

This tradition cornmeal dish comes from Piemontese farmers and montanari,  mountain people, and is also called pane dei poveri ( bread of the poor) since it was the daily meal of those with less disposable income, but now even those sporting 1200 euros worth of trekking gear will plunk down about eight euros for a plate of polenta.

While originally other grains may have been used, today the various recipes start with boiling corn meal and water, ideally in a copper pot and stirring, than adding the topping of choice. It can range in texture from creamy to grainier, I prefer a grainier texture, more like oatmeal than cream of wheat.  It can also be offered in the less porridgy, crispier form of grilled polenta but this seems to be reserved for lower elevations where Gore-Tex sightings are less frequent.

Love the one you’re with

While I love the whole rifugio thing they have going on over here in Italy, and the home made foods they serve, I admit sometimes I would just like a good burger. You may be able to find pasta, or pasta al forno, or maybe  soup, but a burger is hard to come by.  So polenta it is.

The portions of rifugio polenta are generous (more American sized than Italian sized) and should fill you up after a busy morning of mountain activities without a problem. At times, I find it somewhat daunting to think of finishing it all, but people do and as filling as it seems, it does not seem to sit uncomfortably while digesting. The one time I was able to finish my portion was on a particularly brutal day on a snowshoe to the Laghi di Boden , reminding me of the weather one not so infrequently encounters at the top of the Breckenridge T-bar. (Colorado, not Italy)

Beyond the rifugi: All you can eat polenta (within a half hour)

If you happen to develop a hankering for polenta, and like to eat at an efficient pace, I have heard about a new chain called Trenta Polenta. In Italian, trenta means 30, and the concept of this Italian version of fast food, is that you can eat all the polenta you want in 30 minutes. In the country with hour and half lunch breaks and that invented the Slow Food movement at a reaction against fast food (with a snail as its logo), the Italian chain has created an unlikely business model for this nation, but hey maybe they figured there was a group of people without much time wanting to wolf down large portions of polenta.

So if planning to dine at an Italian rifugio give the polenta a try, it is definitely part of the experience.



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Spectacular Spec

Food always tastes better after an active day in fresh air. Enjoy the speck from the Alto Adige region, nicely paired with a local wine- “what grows together goes together” .

Speck, IMO, could be translated as delicious, but it is translated from the ancient high German word “spek” meaning something thick, fat. ( which to many of us also could mean delicious) However you can cut off the fattiest part should you want and it is a good source of protein (muscles come in handy when doing lots of mountainy things) .

South Tyrolean farmers slaughtered pigs at Christmas and cured the meat to keep their families fed through the winter. The salty, slightly smokey meat follows the traditional preparation today “a little salt, a little smoke and a lot of fresh air.” Those who prepare it, guard their secret seasoning formulas.

Suedtirol, Speck, geniesen, Vinschgau, Marende, Herbst,

Suedtirol, Speck, geniesen, Vinschgau, Marende, Herbst,

For those who get really into speck, there is a speck festival that takes place in Alto Adige each year. The next one is in October, check out the Montanari Events Calendar or visit the website dedicated to this spectacular cured meat for more info including recipes. ( I suggest you read it while eating properly slices speck , and if you really become a fan, then you are in luck as there is an entire festival dedicated to this cured pig meat. The South Tyrol Speck Festival takes place in October, who wouldn’t want a t-shirt from that!)