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Ticino - Switzerland
Chestnut cultivation, chestnut and marronai in Canton Ticino and Bregaglia
The roast chestnut seller, marunatt in dialect, is a figure that you still frequently find in town squares during fairs, festivals and markets. Chestnut sellers carry out their independent business roughly between September and March, generally located in a designated spot. Roast chestnut sellers are also present in other European countries, where roast chestnuts are prepared differently, such as adding salt in the preparation. The current figure of roast chestnuts sellers that are active in the main town squares of Canton Ticino is approximately ten. They are not organised in any form of corporation, however the ones working in the same town often consult each other about the quality of the product and the development of the business. Above all the sellers, marronai, inspect the quality of the produce. In addition to the desired flavour, the roast chestnuts must be easy to peel and remain soft. Good business days for a marronaio mean selling up to 50 kilos of roast chestnuts, considering that the chestnuts lose around 30% of their weight after being roasted.
Despite extensive chestnut woods spread throughout Ticino, since a few decades the nuts utilised to make roast chestnuts come from various regions of Italy. The chestnuts produced in Ticino can hardly satisfy the clients' quality requirements and, in addition to this, the quantity demanded by the local market exceeds the local production. It is worth specifying that the cost of labour in Switzerland relevant to picking, choosing and storing the fruits is much higher than in other countries. This explains why the first batch of chestnuts offered on the market comes from Campania, followed later mainly by the produce from Lazio, Tuscany and Piedmont. The distribution is in the hands of Italian wholesalers, often with Ticino origins, that distribute both to Swiss wholesalers and to factories that produce foods containing chestnuts, such as flour, pasta, beer and oatmeal.
The chestnut, also known as the "bread of the poor", has had for centuries a crucial role in the diet of a great portion of the Italian part of Switzerland. The conservation of the nut was of fundamental importance and was obtained through desiccation. This process took place in small buildings purposely set up for this procedure, called gra' in the dialect of Ticino and cascina in the dialect of Bregaglia.
The traditional process of desiccation and threshing has been abandoned gradually after the Second World War. In the last decades these traditional methods have been however rediscovered and are coming back especially for educational purposes and cultural and historical re-enactments.
In Vallemaggia and in Valle di Muggio, specifically in Moghegno and Cabbio, some cultural associations and museums, such as Centro Natura Vallemaggia and the Museo etnografico della Valle di Muggio, have reinstated old gra buildings together with the help of volunteers. These traditional drying facilities have also been re-opened in Bregaglia, in the Sottoporta district. Following the collection of the chestnuts, the ones that haven't been sold or that would not be used without being desiccated, are placed on the upper floor of the building, 2 metres from the ground, on a wooden trellis. The different owners place their harvest into separate compartments and fill layers of approximately 30 centimetres. The lower part of the building hosts a fire which is constantly burning and is exclusively fuelled by chestnut wood and chaff of the former year. The latter performs an important task, keeping the flame constant so that the nuts do not overheat. During the desiccation process, that last 3 to 6 weeks, an appointed person frequently turns over the chestnuts with a wooden rake. Through this process the nuts will lose volume and a third of their weight. Towards the end of November the gra is unloaded, and then the chestnuts are peeled from their shells. This procedure makes use of elongated and narrow strong sacks, that are filled only partially so to allow movement to the chestnuts so that they can peel off evenly. Once half filled, the sacks are beaten onto stumps at a varying pace. The desiccated chestnuts are then put into big oblong baskets called ventalibri so to lose the last bits of skin and inner skin, through strong and repeated movements from high to low and right to left. The last selection process usually happens manually. The grinding concludes the preparation of the chestnuts. In Val Bregaglia the desiccated chestnuts are milled at Promontogno; the flour obtained through this process is sieved and put on the market.
For twenty years or so there has also been a trend to attend, manage and restore chestnut woods, which constitute a remarkable natural and landscape heritage. In Ticino these revitalisation plans are carried out by several institutions and bodies amongst which forest management Cantonal departments, the "Gruppo di lavoro sul castagno", the sudalpina branch of "Istituto di ricerca federale per la ricerca della foresta, la neve e il paesaggio" (WSL) and ultimately the "Associazione dei Castanicoltori della Svizzera italiana".
The first roast chestnut sellers which we know of, where for the most part originally from the valleys north of Ticino. This type of work was carried out beyond the Alps as well as abroad. It relates to the bigger picture of the seasonal immigration which was usual for the people living in Valle di Blenio and Levantina: they recurred to this activity for generations in order to increase the scarce family income. The rural area and the type of economy linked to its characteristics, determined a drastic decrease of work during winter, therefore men were forced to find a job that allowed them to provide for their families between November and March. Many of the men from Valle di Blenio and Levantina moved initially to European cities such as Milan, Pavia, Florence, Paris, Nancy, Brussels and London and ultimately to the main towns beyond the Alps.
LEARNING AND TRANSMISSION
The roast chestnut seller profession tends to be passed on to members of the same family or to men coming from the same village. However, it does happen that a marronaio leaves as inheritance his tools to people that do not strictly belong to his circle of relatives or acquaintances, therefore it is likely that this profession will continue to exist. According to some marronai, the only risk for the activity is represented by climate change or chestnut plant diseases. A recent example that caused a drastic reduction of honey as well as the chestnuts production was the Dryocosmus kuriphilus.
Both Val Bregaglia and Ticino host events to promote chestnuts and associated products, which are sold and consumed in different ways. The numerous chestnut festivals, also known as castagnate, are held privately or in public spaces and are the part of the autumn calendar that focus on the preparation and enjoyment of roast chestnuts. Since 1978 the "Sagra della castagna" (Chestnut festival) takes place in Valle Muggio in one of the ten villages; every year, every second Sunday of October this event is buzzing thanks to folklore groups, bands and exhibitors. Only in recent years, private homes are opened to the public so they can discover and appreciate the architectural and artistic merit of period houses.
Val Bregaglia hosts since 2004, at the beginning of October, the "Sagra della castagna" (Chestnut festival) organised by the "Associazione Castanicoltori Bregaglia", a group of 30 active members. During these two weeks of festival, the local restaurants offer a menu based on chestnuts recipes. Amongst the gastronomic programme, culinary itineraries and chestnut dedicated markets need to be pointed out. Particular mention goes to the guided tours along a footpath running through a chestnut wood in Brentan (Castasegna) organised by the group "Tra la Maira ed il Mera": the itinerary is well documented with leaflets and explores the variety of chestnut cultures, forestry and the local flora and fauna. It goes without saying, the "Sagra della castagna" of Val Bregaglia is very popular and attracts every year a great number of visitors.
Since 10th September 2012 the chestnut cultivation, chestnuts and marronai in the Italian region of Switzerland appear in the list of "Tradizioni viventi in Svizzera" (Alive traditions in Switzerland), a project that aims to value, protect and promote the intangible cultural heritage belonging to all the districts of the Swiss Confederation.
To learn more
SVIZZERA Canton Ticino - Centro di Dialettologia e di Etnografia - Giovanna Ceccarelli
25-GEN-2017 (Agostina Lavagnino)Tweet
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