When you think of fall in Tuscany, what are the first things that come to mind?
My list would include porcini mushrooms, the harvest of grapes and olives, and chestnuts. No surprise that I associate fall with food because in Italy, the seasonal influence on food is fundamental. And, for me, food and travel are always woven together.
Fall is also a season of sagras, community festivals celebrating local foods. One is the Festa della Castagna (Chestnut Festival) in the Tuscan hamlet of Colognora di Pescaglia. Colognora is a small hilltown with about 70 year-round inhabitants. It has a film-set quality about it with its uneven cobbled streets winding uphill, beautiful stone houses, and small lanes leading to beautiful vistas (in fact, this town was used as the set for Spike Lee’s film “Miracle at St. Anna”). It’s hard to believe that villages like this still exist; what a joy that they do!
A few more pictures of Colognora:
Chestnuts are an important aspect of the culture in this part of northern Tuscany. The hilly terrain around Colognora - lying between plains and mountains - is perfect for growing chestnut trees. The many uses of the chestnut, as food, lumber, raw material for baskets and other household goods, and fuel are demonstrated in a small but interesting museum, the Museo di Castagna. It provides a peek into the past, when the chestnut was essential to life in this area. History comes alive with displays of the many ways the chestnuts were used, the tools used in processing (to shell, dry, grind, weigh, store, saw, and smoke the wood), along with displays of the many implements made using the wood.
In times of hardship, chestnuts were a life-sustaining food source, an element of “cucina povera.” Flour made from dried chestnuts is still uses to produce breads, cakes, cookies, pasta, and (my personal favorite) necci - a thick crepe often served filled with sweetened ricotta. But at the Festa della Castagna, the real star is the flame-roasted chestnut with charred skin bursting open to reveal a soft, tasty middle.
Perhaps the only thing better than the taste is the fragrant scent of roasting chestnuts filling the air and drawing visitors to the site of the roasters. Here, in the center of the village, music played, children and couples danced, a group of men did the roasting and women handed out small bags of hot, freshly roasted chestnuts.
The only scent that could compete with the chestnuts was the perfume of frying frittelle dolce (loose translation, sweet fritters). These doughnut-style sweets were fried outdoors, rolled in sugar, and served hot. The smell was tantalizing, as evidenced by the lines of people patiently waiting for their turn to taste one.
The fall festa is a big event - visitors fill the narrow streets, visit the chestnut museum, and browse the many artisans who demonstrate working with chestnut wood to produce baskets, brooms, foods, and even iron implements (using charcoal made from chestnut wood to fire their stoves). Other artisans sell a variety of handmade crafts, art, and food along the streets.
Visiting this festival on a Sunday afternoon in fall was my idea of a perfect day. Gentle weather, a beautiful off-the-beaten-track Italian village, a unique sagra celebrating local customs, and a chance to try new food with a cultural connection. What could be better!
A big thanks to Angelo Giannini at Lucca Italian School for accompanying our group to this festa, sharing the unique local history and customs, and serenading us too! -Post by JMB