Story: The sovereign chestnut

A spiky ambassador for Ticino

Furthermore, despite their small size, chestnuts can be used to make great things: pasta, beer, mouthwatering desserts, furniture, honey and even beauty products.

The “bread tree” has fed Ticino families for centuries and is deeply rooted in tradition. Today it’s at the origin of mouthwatering delicacies and forms beautiful woods where you can immerse yourself in the pace and quiet of nature. Two exceptional guides show us around.

It welcomes you in spring with its young emerald-green leaves and its little cascades of flowers. In summer you’re struck by the quiet and the bees buzzing calmly around as they look for precious nectar to make their excellent honey. In autumn you’re taken back to your childhood by the sound of the rustling leaves as you hunt for the tasty fruits beneath them. The flavour and aroma of roast chestnuts warm your heart in winter.

Exploring Ticino’s chestnut woods or enjoying a chestnut-based product is a truly unforgettable experience. First and foremost, that’s because these woods seem much closer to a park than most woodland and are therefore a perfect place for children to play. 

Lara Monti and Carlo Scheggia are well aware of all this. Despite being different ages, with different backgrounds, they are both extremely passionate about everything to do with this small fruit.

Carlo, let’s start with the chestnut woods. You launched a project to revive them in the 1990s. What’s so special about them?

“It’s difficult to explain. It’s a different space, in the heart of nature, despite being just a short distance from the town. The first wood we salvaged from the advancing forest was in Arosio, in the upper Malcantone area. It occupied five hectares. Now this region alone is home to 105 hectares of chestnut woods and we’ve also created the chestnut trail to explore them. We often offer guided tours too. I’ve led lots of them over my thirty-five-year career in forestry, and now we also work with Lara, who accompanies schools and other groups.”

Lara was born in Neggio, in the Malcantone area, but she was from the lake: the upper part of this region felt very distant to her. Then she did her master’s degree in regional development, focusing on woodland, and she ended up exploring the chestnut trail. She fell in love with it. She’s also lived in Lausanne, Stockholm, Berlin and India, and it was there that she got to know how to live in direct contact with the nature on the doorstep. The chestnut woods are somewhat similar. Friendly, nurturing woodland just outside the towns.

Last but not least, chestnut woods play a very important part in biodiversity.

In autumn I always have some chestnuts ready on the fire at home.

The chestnut tree was the bread tree for centuries and fed the population of Ticino. Owning lots of trees was a symbol of wealth and it was all used: the fruit for food, the wood for construction, the leaves as bedding for farm animals.

Chestnut is a symbol of Ticino, just like Merlot. When someone spreads some chestnut honey on bread or when they see a roast-chestnut seller in autumn, they immediately think of Ticino. 

You start by harvesting them, which is great fun. It’s an opportunity to get out in the open air and observe nature. Discovering a large chestnut hiding beneath some leaves is a bit like finding treasure. Some people have been coming to gather chestnuts in these woods for generations: grandparents, parents, children.

The beauty of gathering chestnuts in Ticino is that you can take these fruits home, but there are also collection centres in Ticino that use them to make flour and flakes. It’s really satisfying. You gather them, you collect, if there are too many you sell and you know that they will become a delicious product to taste.

Grà are small huts where the chestnuts are dried. A fire is lit on the ground floor and left to burn for three to four weeks, while the chestnuts are spread over a large grate on the first floor. The smoke and heat dry the fruits, which are then ground and turned into flour. This art has been handed down over the centuries, although today it’s primarily carried out for demonstrations and educational purposes. The main ones in Vezio, Moghegno and Cabbio are still in operation.

The loading and unloading of the grà usually takes place in mid-October and mid-November, coinciding with popular celebrations where you can see this activity first hand.

Pro tip
“Dragrà” is just one of the chestnut-flavoured artisanal beers that can be enjoyed in Ticino.
Lots of chestnut trees are privately owned and you can’t gather chestnuts from beneath trees where the weeds have been cut and the leaves cleared away until the Feast of St Martin (11 November).
700 years the age that can reach a monumental chestnut tree.

Lara, who would have thought that such a small fruit could have so many stories to tell?

“I’d go even further. The chestnut tree has a great energy about it. These woods recharge your batteries. There is even the Japanese technique of shinrin-yoku (literally bathing in the forest), which helps us to break away from everyday rhythms. It would take 2-3 hours, although 20 minutes a day is already beneficial. What is certain is that visiting these trees is a very tangible experience, able to restore you completely.”

“The chestnut wood is alive all year round.”

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