Canton Ticino is known throughout Switzerland, and beyond, for being a wine-producing region. Its sun-drenched hillsides and mild winters are ideal for viticulture.This content was published on September 23, 2000 - 16:00
But for the last year and a half another beverage hailing from southern Switzerland has been making waves, made not from grapes but from other local produce: chestnuts.
A nutritional engineer and environmentalist from Ticino, Gabriele Mazzi came across chestnut beer for the first time one summer while holidaying in the Mediterranean.
Standing amidst crates full of Castégna beer in a warehouse in the Locarnese that acts as company headquarters (as well as an organic tofu production site), Mazzi explains how a trip to the sun got him started in the chestnut beer business.
"I picked up the idea in Corsica. They have been making this type of beer for five years and it's a bit of a speciality there. I tasted it and thought to myself 'Man! There are so many chestnut trees in Ticino, let's try to make it there.'"
It is much less bitter than normal beer, and has a very light consistency - one only gets the chestnut taste at the end of a sip. These are qualities that Mazzi believes give his product universal appeal.
"Women don't usually like Swiss beer because it's bitter," he says, "but because chestnuts are sweet, this beer doesn't have too strong a taste, so it's something even they would like! Furthermore, compared to six other beers, an independent testing body in Turin showed ours to have a higher energy value."
Ticino has a love-hate relationship with chestnuts. Amid the poverty that was rife less than a century ago, they constituted the region's staple food. Without them, the Ticinesi say they would have starved. They pounded the chestnuts into flour to make bread, dried them, boiled them, roasted them, and lived off them throughout the winter.
Towards the middle of the 20th century, however, with easy transportation and cheap access to other cereals - like wheat and rice - the people rapidly disowned the fruit. Chestnut forests, which require a lot of time and hard work to maintain, were abandoned, and it looked as if the fruit would disappear from the Ticinese diet.
However, over the past decade, there have been efforts to revive the image of the chestnut, and to encourage landowners to resume taking care of the forgotten forests. Mazzi and his partner, Pierluigi Zanchi, are two entrepreneurs who have vowed to bring the chestnut back into general consumption in innovative ways.
"We didn't want to simply suggest old recipes from 50 years ago, that just wouldn't be attractive. So, on top of the beer, our organic foods company sells products like chestnut flakes, to be eaten for breakfast just like cornflakes. We make chestnut pasta - tagliatelle and penne-type pasta shaped like chestnut leaves. We have created jams and a spread that is similar to Nutella, but which is far healthier - made from organic chestnuts and hazelnuts."
Mazzi and Zanchi began developing their brand of beer called Castégna (the Ticino dialect word for chestnut) in 1997 and began selling it in mid-1998. Brewed in Appenzell - Ticino has no breweries to its name - last year they sold 30,000 litres of the beer. This year they hope to double that quantity, and reach 100,000 litres by the end of 2001.
Their ideas were novel, but not beyond the tastes of the Ticinesi. Mazzi says the locals were surprisingly quick to warm to the idea of this new kind of beer, and market vendors and shop owners responded enthusiastically. But, it is north of the Gotthard that Castégna is being guzzled the most.
"It's the Swiss-Germans who like the beer even more than the Ticinesi do. I think the reason for their love of the product is that they are not as accustomed to chestnuts as we are; the fruit is something special, a rarity."
The partners are convinced that chestnut products, with novel twists, have enormous potential in this country. Ironically, though, the demand for chestnuts is far higher than the amount Ticino produces - so for the moment the chestnut beer company is forced to import them from the Italian region of Piedmont.
However, Mazzi and Zanchi are committed to seeing chestnut forests flourish once again in their canton, and to gathering the funds necessary to make it profitable for landowners to cultivate the trees. Thus, one percent of the modest income from each bottle of Castégna goes towards making that dream a reality.
by Juliet Linley
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