There are a great many traditions linked to chestnuts, and with good reason: although we only think of them in autumn now, when the smell of roasted chestnuts fills the air, it wasn't always that way. Chestnuts were once a fundamental part of the local diet.
The loading and unloading of the grà was a very important ritual in the lives of our ancestors. Every year, one of the many old and almost forgotten Ticinese traditions is observed at the grà di Moghegno (drying and storing of chestnuts). But not only there: due to the involvement of schoolchildren, it is being actively passed on to new generations.
Chestnuts were a staple part of the Ticino diet in the olden days. Its flour was cheaper than wheat flour and whole chestnuts were served with vegetables, rice and meat. Chestnuts were found in soups, desserts, pretty much everywhere. Nonetheless, as they were easily damaged by mould and maggots, specific methods were needed to preserve the chestnuts for any extended period. One of the most common conservation methods in Ticino was to dry them on a lattice. That is why our canton is still dotted with grà, little stone structures used to dry the chestnuts. The name “grà” comes from the lattice (graticcio in Italian) where the chestnuts were placed during the process, with a fireplace underneath made out of chestnut wood.
Once the chestnuts have been loaded onto the grà, the longest and most laborious part of the process begins. The fire is kept burning for three weeks. The most important part during this phase is the heat coming from the fire. The flames are partly covered by the chestnut peelings from the year before to prevent it from getting too hot. During these three weeks, the chestnuts are turned every three to four days and the fire is stoked three times a day.
After three weeks, the chestnuts are ready to be unloaded. They lose a third of their weight during the process as the water within them evaporates. The still warm chestnuts are then placed in long canvas sacks to be beaten. According to tradition, the sacks are beaten with pieces of wood to break the chestnut skins, a physically demanding exercise. This part is now entrusted to the schoolchildren. Once they have been beaten, the chestnuts are placed in the “val” to separate them from the now powdered skins. The remains of the skins will be used the following year to cover the fire in the grà. The last part consists of polishing the chestnuts by hand, picking out the best ones – preserved whole for consumption – and leave the shattered ones to make flour.
The unloading of the grà also provides an important opportunity to teach children more about the culture of the chestnut. During the unloading, the schoolchildren participate in the beating as well as learning about the history of the chestnut tradition and about Moghegno.