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.
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.
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.