It happens to be just the right time of year to pick chestnuts (castagne). We had guests this weekend in Maremma who are expert foragers and we wanted to show them what great foraging they could do in Tuscany, so we took them to a public park where we’d heard that one could safely and legally pick chestnuts.
Okay, I considered not blogging about this place, or keeping its location secret, but really there are enough chestnuts there for all of us (as long as arttrav doesn’t suddenly become the new york times of Florence). In the small town of Sassofortino there’s a public park with huge chestnut trees. And around mid October these trees yeild an unimaginable bounty of nuts! Locals bring their baskets or bags and take nuts from the ground or out of the burs that were constantly falling near or on us (being spiny the latter is quite painful). Each burr of this variety of chestnut contains 3, or sometimes 2 larger nuts. To get the nuts out of the burr without hurting yourself, step on one side with your shoe, or both sides if necessary. When picking nuts from the ground, check that the husk is intact; if it has a white secretion or any holes, that’s worms that have gotten in.
We met a local man who asked us how our hunt was going – clearly a ploy to engage us in conversation as we could barely carry the 5 or so kilos that we’d picked up. He said indeed this is a great free resource and that it’s perfectly legal to come here and pick chestnuts. He noticed that we were not armed with bottles to fill at the fountain in the same park, and told us something we didn’t know – that there is excellent fresh spring water available here too. Our conversation ended when the tree above us released about 5 burs all at once that fell with bangs, prompting him to joke that it was like afghanistan here!
How to cook your chestnuts
We boiled some in abundant water seasoned with bay leaves or whatever you have on hand, and a drop of oil, for 30-40 minutes (depending on if you like it more mealy or more liquid). Boiled castagne can be used in pasta or other meals. The more traditional solution is to cook them on an open fire, either with a BBQ or on a gas flame using a special pan with holes in the bottom. Remove the whole outer husk before eating! The sweet “marron glacé” is made with a larger variety of the nut.
Other chestnut events in Tuscany
This is the season to attend a fair at which roasted chestnuts and related products are sold. The most famous is the Sagra delle Castagne in Marradi, to which one takes either the regular regional or a special antique steam train. It’s a small town at the top of the Faentina, the road that connects Florence to Faenza over the Appenines. Firenzuola and Palazzuolo are two other places with chestnut fairs this month – check out the excellent article and list from APT Firenze.