The sweet chestnut tree, a common sight in the southern Alps at altitudes of between 200 and 1000 m, was once known as the "bread tree", since chestnuts were one of the staple foods of Canton Ticino until the early Middle Ages.
Various methods were used to preserve the chestnuts, allowing them to be eaten almost all year round, one of the most common of these was a unique drying procedure. They were taken from the chestnut forest to a small, two-storey stone building known as a grà, where they were dried slowly for several weeks above a fire kept at a constant temperature. The romantic sight of wisps of smoke rising from the grà has all but died out, but the nutritional value and delicious flavour of this autumnal food remain.
Today the products made from chestnuts are similar to those produced in the past, and include flour, flakes, bread, pasta, cake, jam and beer. Lovers of good food devour chestnuts in a plenthora of forms: marrons glacés, roasted, boiled and served with cream or as a side to many dishes, including game.
Texts: Alessandro Pesce, journalist, and Daniela Linder-Basso (UCT)