Getting under the skin
The sweet chestnut has three layers of protection, which makes for much hard work for those who want to turn the fruit into flour. There’s the green spiny outer covering. When the chestnut is ripe at the end of September or early October, it drops from the tree and this outer case splits open revealing the middle shell, the shiny dark brown one we see on fresh chestnuts in shops and, at this time of year, roasting on street corners of some cities. Inside the leathery dark brown shell is the final protective layer, a thin reddish brown skin. Inside this hides the cream-coloured nut.
It’s the remnants of the shell and this pesky inner skin that is occupying all our time now. When we collected the chestnuts, the prickly outer case was left on the woodland floor where it rots very slowly — beware sitting on the ground in a chestnut wood! After being dried for at least 40 days and nights in a metato (a special chestnut-drying hut), most, but not all, of the dark brown shell and inner skin was removed in a machine resembling a giant cheese grater.
Chestnut flour is naturally sweet, and the goal is to produce the sweetest flour possible. You shouldn’t have to add sugar to a chestnut cake, but the shell and skin are bitter, as are chestnuts that accidentally got burnt in the drying process. All the chestnuts and pieces of chestnuts have to be sorted and cleaned by hand to remove them.
We gather in the old school that now functions as a community hall. In the centre of the room is a large shallow wooden box with a screen bottom resting on trestles. Members of Franca and Peppe’s family are bent over around the sieve, pushing the chestnuts from one end of the sieve to the other. Each person quickly removes some of the bad pieces, scrapes off remnants of inner skin with a serrated kitchen knife and pushes them on to the next person who does the same until they reach the other end, where Franca and Olga remove the last of the offending bits and shove the good ones out the end into a plastic bucket, which Franca empties periodically into antique hemp sacks embroidered with family initials. I love the way they happily mix old and new — the utilitarian plastic buckets next to the beautiful hemp sacks, also perfect for their purpose.
This is the most boring work imaginable. The others are talking, but I don’t understand when they race along in the local accent. Everyone’s back aches. We stand, we sit. I stand on one leg and then the other, try a tai chi stance. Glance at my watch. Still two hours till lunch. Then someone asks me a question. I ask them to repeat it and understand the second time round. I reply and we have a short conversation. When we stop talking, I realise my back doesn’t ache. I listen more intently and join in. I begin to realise, that’s the remedy. And now it’s lunch time.
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