It’s winter in Chicago. Cold and crisp, the air outside reminds us of the holiday season. And for many Italians that means chestnuts! For centuries, this lowly fruit was the main sustenance of our people and played an important role during December and January’s cold winter months.
Since autumn is harvest time for chestnuts, winter always has been the perfect time to enjoy them. There are many ways to prepare these soft and tasty nuts. More like a fruit, they can be roasted, boiled, or dried and ground into a flour, opening up a flurry of culinary possibilities. Chestnuts and its flour sustained hundreds of thousands of Italians for centuries. It’s no wonder–they are loaded with protein, vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, and antioxidants that include vitamins B and C, potassium, folates, fiber and more! So when we hear our elders say, “We lived on chestnuts and chestnut flour, the bread of the poor,” they actually were living on a near-perfect food source.
Recently, I had the pleasure of talking to my friend Dianne Di Vagno about her father and his chestnut memories growing up in a tiny Italian hamlet just outside of Pievepelago in Emilia-Romagna. There he maintains his family’s old stone building, a reminder of life as it used to be.
Here’s what she had to say:
“During World War II, my Dad lived in Fontanini–the village where his mother was born. They moved there from Pieve to get away from potentially being bombed. In Fontanini, his family owned a large grove of chestnut trees. It was these chestnuts that provided them with much of their nourishment during the war when food was scarce. Every October, all of his family members would work together to harvest the chestnuts. They would wear aprons with large pockets to gather the nuts. Some of the chestnuts were used to make chestnut flour. The rest were cooked by roasting or boiling.
“My dad’s real name is Erio. It was changed to Jimmy when he moved to America because no one could think of a similar name for Erio in English. Years later, he realized his name could have been changed to Eric–nobody thought of it at the time. For this reason, my sister named her son Eric.
“In Fontanini, there was a metato, the structure used to dry the chestnuts using indirect heat. It was the first step in the process of making the chestnuts into flour. After the chestnuts were dried in the metato, they were taken to the mill to be processed into flour. The chestnuts had to be dried first in order to make the hard outer shell crack easily, thus making the actual nut removable from its casing. Also, the chestnut itself had to be cooked in this way so it could dry out and be easily grinded into flour. Picture this: The floor of the metato stone structure was scattered with slowly burning wood. The freshly picked chestnuts were then spread out on top of wire screens that were placed high over the heat of the fire to cook and dry out–sort of like a smokehouse for meat, but for chestnuts!
“Once the chestnuts were dried in the metato, they were taken to the local mill to be ground into flour. It was a barter/trade/exchange relationship. My grandfather would pay the mill owner with chestnut flour that he had just ground. Back at home, my grandmother would use the flour to make a dish called ‘menni,’ which was similar to oatmeal. My father ate this often during the war, especially in the wintertime when food was scarce. He never grew tired of the menni and enjoyed the slightly sweet taste of it. My grandmother also would use the chestnut flour to make a dessert called ‘castagnaccio.’ He described it as having a brownie-like consistency.
“My father also has many memories of eating ‘baluccis.’ A balucci was a fresh chestnut–not dried in the metato–that was boiled in water over the fireplace. The boiling process would soften both the nuts’ outer shell and the chestnut meat inside. The family would gather around the fireplace during the colder months to cook and eat baluccis while the elders would tell stories about spirits to entertain the kids. The balucci was eaten in the following manner: After being removed from the boiling water, it was placed directly into your mouth and hand-squeezed. The soft puree-like interior would ooze out and be eaten. Another way his family would use chestnuts was to make a filling for ‘zabadone’ cookies by mixing chestnut puree and preserves into a filling. My grandmother also made a soup that was milk-based as well as thin crepes called ‘necci.’ These days they still make necci, but they often fill them with Nutella, which, of course, wasn’t available during World War II!
“My dad remembers stockings by the fireplace filled with edible goodies that included roasted chestnuts. Erio and his three brothers would each receive an orange, an apple, some ‘caramelle’ hard candies, walnuts and roasted chestnuts on Epiphany morning. Back then, gifts were very simple, usually knitted gloves, hats and scarves that came from La Befana on Jan. 6, not on Christmas. My dad passed on his love of chestnuts to us, and we still enjoy them today as a special treat.”
Mille grazie to Dianne and Jimmy for sharing these amazing memories with me. While our younger generation might not think of a chestnut as a yummy snack food, they might be healthier if they did. Perhaps if they see us reach for them, we might succeed in turning them on to this hearty health food. I know my first experience as a youngster eating a chestnut didn’t match my favorite chunky chocolate snack, but I’m glad I learned to love them. Traditions truly do pass the test of time. We just have to give them a chance and continue to share them. So the next time you get the opportunity, have fun teaching future generations of Italians how to crack a warm toasted chestnut in their palm!
If you have a story to share about our North Shore Italians, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to share it with others.