The Chestnut Festival

We’ve been unconsciously looking forward to this for a long time, I think. Almost exactly two years ago we were getting ready to go to the Chestnut Festival in Cuneo. We were also getting ready for what was supposed to be a three-month trip to the United States. We had several reasons for making that trip. Our U.S.-based business needed some serious attention. I had two brothers getting married and a sister going on a mission. And I was having some visa difficulties that could most easily be resolved by a lengthy absence from Italy.

But there were reasons not to make the trip too. Well, there was one reason. I was very uneasy about going. Somehow I knew that we would not be coming back, at least not for a long, long time. And Italy was so beautiful then. Fall was in the air, and the blackberries were ripe. It was a brisk, breezy day, and we rode the bus into Cuneo for the festival. The beautiful green park that runs the length of the city is lined with chestnut trees, and the grass below them was littered with spiky pods and mahogany-smooth chestnuts. I had a chestnut soup recipe I wanted to make, so Axa and I filled an entire backpack with them.

Then we walked together through the festival, which mostly consisted in booths of various good things to eat. Piedmont hosts the capital of the Slow Food movement. They take gastronomy seriously here. There were booths of artisan olive oil, wine, bread, cheese, and salami, all produced locally. These were interspersed with donkey milk, spices, honey in a dozen different varieties and colors, and wooden toys and kitchen utensils.

But the crowning glory of the chestnut festival is the sweets. There are the chestnuts, of course, which for the festival undergo a process somewhat like fossilization, except that they end as sugar rather than rock. They are then known as marrone, and can either be eaten plain or chopped up to adorn cakes made with chestnut flour (chestnut flour here is an option like wheat flour or rye flour). And yes, there are five or six men turning giant pans roasting chestnuts over a huge open fire.

Piedmont is also the birthplace of the inspired combination of hazelnut and chocolate, which was born out of a chocolate shortage resulting from (depending on the source) a tax on cocoa beans or a city siege. Leave it to the Italians to turn a privation into a delicacy. The Cuneo Chestnut Festival features a display of chocolate sculptures made by local chocolate shops. The local specialty, cuneesi al rhum is infused with alcohol, so we’ve never tried it, but other varieties, including raspberry, walnut, and dark truffle, can also be found.

You can also get chocolate-covered candied orange, ginger (my favorite), and apricot. Needless to say, all the chocolate is high quality artisan chocolate, and packaged as artistically as it is made. Two years ago we bought ten kilos of Cuneo chocolate to take home as gifts for family and friends. Some of you actually did end up getting chocolate . . . but I am sorry to say that a good portion of it slowly and mysteriously disappeared from our freezer. Tony and I have agreed between us that neither will be the one to cast the first stone, since I’m afraid neither of us can truly claim to be without sin.

This year the weather for the festival was cold and rainy. Winter seems to be arriving early. I think I was unconsciously expecting some disaster to occur, and for the Chestnut Festival to once again mark the end of our time in Italy. But nothing has happened. We’re settled, citizenship is resolved, we’re getting comfortable in Italian, have callings at Church, and Tony has a great job (I’ll tell you about that job tomorrow). Slowly but surely, we’re building a firm foundation under that long-beloved castle in the air.

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