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.
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 FESTIVALS AND YES EVEN CHESTNUT gear
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.
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.
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).