What I love about Italy is that it is a country that is just as passionate about food just as I am. And nearly every week, somewhere in Italy, is a festival (or sagra) celebrating local food. I came to Reggio’Emilia this week to visit friends, but happily my visit happen to coincide with chestnut season. This past Sunday the main street of the town was blocked off for la Festa della Castagna (chestnut festival). I dropped my bags off at the hotel and practically ran out to join the party. Hot-roasted chestnuts right this way!
The chestnuts were easy to find—in the center of the street beneath a plume of smoke and a large, hungry crowd. I got in line, well, at least what I thought was a line, with everyone else. Raw chestnuts (castagne, or marroni, which means brown) cost 4.50 euro (about $6) per kilo. Roasted chestnuts (caldarroste): 3 euros for half a kilo. You want caldarroste? You need to go over there and pay the lady first.
Fighting to keep my place in line was challenging enough, but the real fun was watching what was going on behind the table.
A five-foot high copper kettle hung suspended above a small fire. Occasionally the man on the left fed the fire with very small twigs. What was inside that kettle? Presumably chestnuts, but what did they look like? I’d eaten roasted chestnuts before, but never really seen how they were prepared.
The man in the plaid shirt at the top of the platform kept reaching into the smoking kettle, feeling around to assess the contents, then removing his hand and turning away, as if unsatisfied with the results. I guess the chestnuts weren’t done yet. But how could he tell? Finally, I couldn’t take the suspense any longer. I was dying to know. I snuck around the barricades and tiptoed up the stairs to peek over his shoulder. I was surprised by what was inside:
It looked like a big pot of milky soup. Another man began stirring the mixture with a large whisk-like tool. Apparently the chestnuts must be boiled first to soften them. I snapped my picture and quickly ran back into the crowd.
I missed the next step because I went off to investigate the other offerings of the festival. When I came back the chestnuts had been transferred to a large flat pan with a strong fire going underneath.
Finally the roasted chestnuts were wrapped in a blanket (to keep them warm), placed inside a crate and brought to the waiting crowd. But not before the man in the yellow cap looked my way. He had been watching me the whole time I had been sneaking around, trying to get a good angle for photos and hanging around next to the phone booth trying to look inconspicuous. He looked over at me now.
“Would you like to try some?” he asked. Si! Would I ever! He went and got a bag and filled it with a handful of hot, freshly roasted chestnuts.
I popped it into my mouth and rubbed my blackened hands on my jeans. Mmm. Sweet, creamy and nutty. I nodded and smiled. The man in the yellow cap grinned knowingly back at me. Welcome to Italy.