The chestnut is a tree, which in Italian woods can reach 20-25 meters in height, belonging to the Castanea Sativa species of European origin; there are other species of castanea, and in particular, in Italy, the Japanese chestnut (castanea crenata) and the irises that were created between the two species are also cultivated. The chestnut It is a tree that generally has no place in gardens, as its dimensions tend to become imposing; it therefore finds a place in wooded areas, or rarely in large parks. It has a stocky and well developed stem, at the top of which there is a large thick foliage; the foliage is deciduous, elongated, lanceolate, light green; the newly sprouted leaves have a dense down, which falls quickly, leaving a smooth and shiny, slightly leathery foliage. THE chestnut they are monoecious trees, meaning that both male and female flowers bloom on the same tree; the male flowers are gathered in long yellow catkins, the female flowers sprout at the base of the male catkins. Many varieties of chestnut they tend to be self-fertile, and therefore, for a good harvest, it is good that in the same area there are more chestnut trees. This feature has absolutely no problem in Italy, where chestnuts are generally grown in chestnut woods: whole woods, completely cultivated with chestnut trees.
The fruits are achenes, and are produced inside a semi-woody shell, equipped with thorns on the outside, commonly called hedgehog, which opens when the fruit ripens.
The common chestnuts are present in the number of two or three inside the hedgehogs; chestnuts, a variety of chestnuts that are particularly large and appreciated, are produced individually within each hedgehog.
THE chestnut they are typically Mediterranean trees, and their diffusion in the semi-wild state occurs in areas that have a fairly mild winter climate, and at least some months a year with temperatures above 25 ° C; in Italy the chestnut woods are present in almost all regions, where there are dozens of cultivar varieties, developed over millennia; in fact it appears that the ancient Greeks, and later the ancient Romans, cultivated chestnuts. The chestnut trees are undemanding trees, which develop even on poor soils, provided they are neutral, or slightly acidic, and not clayey soils. They do not like land that is always damp or compact, but at the same time they do not tolerate prolonged drought, during the summer months. In areas with a very hot climate, chestnut groves are generally found in hilly or mountainous areas, where during the summer temperatures tend not to become torrid.
So it is a tree that does not like excesses: it bears temperatures even close to -20 ° C, but if this event lasts for weeks, plants tend to decay; it bears quite high summer temperatures, but it would be advisable to have the tree in a well ventilated and partially shady area during the hottest days of June and July; it tolerates drought well, but only if it is not excessively prolonged, and if it does not go too far during the flowering period. The flowers bloom in late spring or early summer, and the fruits are ripe in late summer or early autumn.
A little chestnut tree cultivated in the garden it will therefore need watering during the warm months, whenever the soil is completely dry, and the climate is hot, and of fertilizer, for example manure buried at the base of the stem, at the end of winter.
Castanea sativa: the only species of chestnut native to Europe is castanea sativa; it seems that this tree is originally from Turkey and that it was already very widespread in Europe: after the last glaciation, however, no chestnut trees remained on our continent, and were reintroduced by the ancient Greeks. Today there are chestnuts in their natural state in most of southern Europe and in the whole area of the Mediterranean basin; some specimens are also present in some areas of Germany and the United Kingdom.
In most of Europe in the last decades, Castanea crenata has been introduced, and various sativa and crenate hybrids.
North American chestnuts: in North America there are Castanea dentata, Castanea alnifolia, Castanea floridana.
Asian Chestnuts: in Asia there are various species of chestnuts, in addition to the Japanese chestnut, Castanea crenata, we also find Castanea seguinii, Castanea davidii, Castanea mollissima.
All chestnut species produce edible fruits, and are in fact widespread in the areas of origin.
The chestnut groves
The wood is often thought of as a natural element; therefore it is believed that it was born as we see it, and it is self-governing over the years and centuries. Unfortunately in Italy the anthropization is so extensive, that most of the woods on our peninsula are cultivated: that is, hundreds of years ago, someone has planted trees, which today form a forest. Obviously these woods have often naturalized: over the decades new trees have grown from seed, taking the place of cultivated trees. In many parts of Italy, the cultivated woods are chestnut woods; until a few decades ago the chestnut wood was a very useful wood, and was constantly treated; from the chestnut trees an excellent wood was obtained, used in carpentry, and from whose bark tannins were obtained for the tanning of the skins; chestnut fruits, rich in starch, represented a large source of food for many rural populations. Unfortunately, today many chestnut trees are abandoned, as timber and chestnuts are not so fundamental in the agricultural economy of our country.
In order to have a constant harvest of wood and fruit, the chestnut trees were cultivated with stumps: from each root stock some trunks could be developed, which were periodically pruned and renewed, to develop new basal suckers; even today the enormous centuries-old stumps are visible in the chestnut trees, from which numerous stems branch off. This type of cultivation unfortunately must be followed and the stumps need the human hand to be productive over time. Therefore, many abandoned chestnut groves tend not to produce good quality chestnuts.
The fruit of the chestnut is an achene, it is constituted by a pulp rich in starches and sugars, covered by a thick leathery peel, of a glossy brown color; between the pulp and the external peel there is a wrinkled film, which can penetrate inside the pulp (as in chestnuts), or remain outside only (as in browns). The chestnuts are particular varieties of chestnut, appreciated for their very large fruits and for their greater ease of cleaning, which allows them to remain intact. Chestnuts once represented a fundamental source of calories and mineral salts for many European populations; in many areas, chestnut flour was used instead of cereal flour, to prepare bread, pasta, polenta. Nowadays chestnuts are much less used, even if chestnut flour is still a product on the supermarket shelves; typically, in central and northern Italy, with this flour is prepared castagnaccio, a sweet made with chestnuts and milk, baked in the oven.
Dried chestnuts are also used, which are eaten as they are, or often boiled, to rehydrate them, in water, or even in milk. Chestnuts are also eaten whole, typically they are toasted on the embers, still bearing their thick skin; before putting a chestnut on the fire, it is good to make an incision, otherwise the steam due to cooking will cause the semi-woody shell to explode.
Most of the chestnuts produced in Europe are brown, have a smooth skin, covered by raised streaks, and the inner film remains completely outside the pulp; chestnuts are prepared like chestnuts, but candied chestnuts are very popular, better known as marron glacé.
The chestnut trees are also melliferous plants, the honey obtained from these flowers is decidedly special, brown in color, crystallizes with difficulty, and has a very aromatic taste, with a slight hint of bitter aftertaste.
Propagate the chestnut
The chestnuts are propagated by seed; although chestnut trees produce numerous basal shoots, these suckers tend to deteriorate rapidly if they are detached from the roots of the mother plant, and therefore, the fastest method of propagation is always sowing, or cutting. Chestnuts can also be sown in pots, but do not like to be moved, because the root system, when it is still small, is quite delicate. Therefore, it is used to sow the chestnuts directly, or in large containers, where the tree can remain until it has reached a good size. The chestnuts, harvested in September, are placed with sand in a cold and dark place, until the following spring, when they are buried, placing 2-3 in each stall, practiced in a rich and very well drained soil. Small plants need more care than an adult tree, as they tend to dry out quickly in the event of prolonged drought / When young trees have reached a meter and a half in height, they are grafted with the most common varieties of chestnuts or brown.
In Europe, decades ago, chestnut cultivation came to a standstill, motivated mainly by the fact that progress in the agricultural and industrial fields made the production of chestnuts from flour and timber useless; another reason that made the cultivation of these trees more difficult, was also the spread of some pathogens, which went on to significantly ruin many chestnut trees in Italy, and in Europe. One of the most serious diseases of chestnut is cortical cancer, caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica, a parasite native to North America, which spread throughout Europe from the early 1900s. This fungus tends to creep into the wood in the pruning or grafting areas, producing necrotic tissues, which quickly cause the deterioration of large parts of the trees.
Another very dangerous pest for chestnut is phytoptora cambivora, which causes so-called ink sickness; it is a radical fungus, which develops above all in areas characterized by a very humid climate. These two parasites caused, to a greater or lesser extent in the 1940s, a large die-off among Italian chestnut trees; as a result of these diseases and the lower demand for chestnuts and chestnut wood, many farmers stopped cultivating chestnut woods. Today cortical cancer and ink sickness are decisively limited problems, especially because in areas where chestnuts have continued to grow new hybrids have been introduced, able to resist both pathogens.
Other typical chestnut pests are defoliating lepidoptera or galligenic insects, which generally do not cause very serious damage to adult trees.
In the traditional popular pharmacopoeia the chestnut was used against cough, in particular, decoctions or infusions of are used today chestnut leaves to counteract the dry cough; Chestnut honey is also used against cough, dissolved in warm water. Chestnut buds contain active ingredients that improve lymphatic circulation, are used to prepare decoctions, but also for compresses, or in topical ointments, as adjuvants against cellulite, or for problems related to poor drainage of liquids, such as edema. or swollen and heavy legs. Very often, in herbal preparations, leaves, buds and chestnut bark enter the composition of products together with other herbs, with which they have a synergistic action. So often we find products against cough based on eucalyptus, which also contain extracts of chestnut leaves; or even products against cellulite, which contain caffeine, algae and chestnut bud extracts.
In Italy, in addition to edible chestnuts, there are other trees that produce chestnuts, but they are not edible; these are the horse chestnuts, Aesculus hippocastanum, the name clearly states the use that was once made of the fruits of these trees. Although horse chestnuts produce chestnuts, or achenes similar to sweet chestnuts, they are not related to the chestnut species; in fact the chestnut belongs to the same family as the beech, while the horse chestnut is a Sapindaceae tree. Also in this case it is a large tree, which reaches 20-25 meters in height, with deciduous leaves; the foliage is palmate, light in color, consisting of large leaves with a serrated edge. The flowers bloom in large erect spikes, and are large in size and white in color (there are varieties of pink or red flower); the fruits are glossy brown achenes, consisting of a fleshy pulp, covered with a semi-woody peel, enclosed in a thick capsule, provided with soft and not sharp spines. Unlike sweet chestnuts, chestnuts from the horse chestnut are not edible, as they contain high percentages of saponins and glucosides, which in addition to giving an unpleasant taste to the pulp, also make it slightly poisonous.
The chestnut: the castagnaccio
Castagnaccio is a typical sweet of the Italian tradition; it seems that even the ancient Romans used it in their diet, since ancient times we have received many recipes, one for each small town in Italy. The ingredient present in all the recipes is chestnut flour, to which is added sugar and then various ingredients; water and milk in the Lombard castagnaccio, water and pine nuts in the Tuscan castagnaccio. The variants are hundreds, with dried fruit, olive oil, ricotta, citrus peel, up to rosemary or bay leaves. Typically it is a cake baked in the oven, in a rectangular shape, which was then cut into diamonds or squares; in some regions it is called pattona, or patщna, and this name seems to derive from the fact that it was kept in the flap, or in the pocket. The chestnut cake is in fact a caloric and very practical dessert: if well cooked, it is firm and compact, and can be transported without problems, even in the pocket, with the help of some dry leaves so as not to dirty it excessively.
The recipe is simple, about half a kilo of chestnut flour, add 750 ml of water, a few tablespoons of oil and some rosemary leaves; the mixture is worked to break all the small lumps, and it is placed in a flat baking pan, greased with oil; on the surface of the castagnaccio you put what you want (even nothing), like pine nuts, walnuts, raisins, almonds, sugar (very little, because the chestnut flour is naturally sweet), and the pan is placed in the oven at 200 + C for about half an hour. It is expected a little, because it is not hot, and it is eaten, perhaps accompanied by a little chestnut honey.
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