If you are visiting Abruzzo in October, out and about admiring the colourful foliage you may pick up the words sagre delle castagne or castagnata – which refers to a dedicated chestnut festival which is one of the many harvests and reasons to make a beeline to Abruzzo in the Autumn.
I love chestnuts, their deep, sweet smokiness when roasted, their nothing quite like it texture, and their ability to warm the tips of fingers that can feel nippy as you cradle a poke towards the end of October.
All the sagre will host a local artisan food market, some a craft one too, enjoy great local music and perhaps a tribute band at the bigger ones against a bluebird sky backdrop, although sometimes the mist may take a while to burn off in the mountains, but generally, you’ll feel toasty and warm! It’s the month for olive picking and new oil so you may see a stand or two for this and those closer to Abruzzo’s saffron heart towards the end of the month, freshly toasted packets of newly harvested saffron to take home. The villages that host the sagre in the mountains are less well known to international tourists, though of course locals throng to them, expect to uncover local art like the murals at Sante Marie or heritage like Senarica di Crognaleto that was Italy’s smallest republic and linked to Venice!
On the menu at any of Abruzzo’s dedicated chestnut sagre outside of roast chestnuts, you’ll encounter a delicious plethora of chestnut dishes. Chestnut flour polenta, if on offer is delicious, and expect as are the chestnut flour goodies, gnocchi and pasta (if they have chestnut flour ravioli that you dress with peperoncino don’t miss out on trying that). The chestnut soups will be hearty with a mix of chickpeas or local beans and porcini mushrooms. Always worth sampling are the pastries and a mix of deep-fried things filled with chestnut cream and my local favourite, the chocolate and chestnut deep-filled fried and sweet ravioli, caggionetti do feast, relish, and buy a box to take home! If you can’t get here try some of these recipes at home.
It was the Romans that bought chestnuts across to Italy from Asia Minor and their cultivation was fostered by the Benedictines in the Middle Ages. No doubt from the latter chestnuts have gone on to represent ‘virtue” and “chastity’ and ‘providence’ if you see them featured in art. In Val Roveto, one of the larger chestnut areas in Abruzzo, grandparents still enliven bedtime by retelling the stories of the witches that live in the local chestnut woods. If you speak Italian at some of the events they offer chestnut harvesting with storytelling and lunch aimed at families which could be a good way to get to know more people locally if you live in Abruzzo.
If you are desperate just for some roast chestnuts but can’t see any of the dedicated ones local to you, try the Sapori d’Autunno (tastes of Autumn) festivals towards the end of the month or hang on to November and the feast day of San Martino when the Vino Novello is traditionally uncorked and eaten with roast chestnuts. Many generic autumn festivals have open cellars not just filled with wine but home-baked seasonal foods and endless tasty dishes to try. At the end of these, you’ll feel pleasantly stuffed or like a bear who has eaten just a few too many beech nuts in the hope, it wards off the coming winter.