The chestnut has shed its husk to become a trend food in Switzerland. However, local supply from Switzerland's own chestnut belt cannot keep up with demand.
In the early years of the 20th century, chestnut orchards spread across nearly 9,000 hectares in the southern canton of Ticino. For centuries, the local Italian-speaking population depended on chestnuts for their survival.
Then the good times came and the orchards were abandoned. Chestnut trees now cover only about 2,000 hectares, and only about 500 are cultivated because there are few farmers interested in the costly and labour-intensive work to harvest the fruit.
In fact, there aren't even enough locally harvested chestnuts to supply the Ticino-based candied fruit company, Vanini, even though it is based in Caslano, a village in the heart of one of Ticino's main chestnut growing regions, Malcantone.
"We don't have enough chestnuts in Ticino at the moment," says Elena Bosio, the head of Vanini. "If we did, we would use them. But we don't have the quantity or the uniformity. There are plans to create plantations to save them, because they have been neglected."
About 40 per cent of Vanini's products are made from chestnuts; marrons glacé, puree, jam and whole chestnuts soaked and preserved in alcohol. And just one kind of chestnut is used - the large Italian commercial variety, the "Marrone di Cuneo". These are imported from Italian and Spanish plantations.
The average selling price of fresh or processed chestnuts: SFr1.8 per kilogramme.
The 35 tons of chestnuts currently produced annually in Switzerland is worth about SFr63,000 ($38,228). This is a drop in the bucket compared with Italy, where the total yield is valued at SFr6.3 million. If Switzerland cultivated its full 2,000 hectares, then the value would be SFr252,000.
The smaller indigenous varieties of Ticino cannot compete, even though they are considered just as flavourful as the Cuneo and contain less sucrose and total fatty acids, and more protein.
The Swiss Federal Agriculture Research Station has recommended the cultivation in Ticino for commercial use of the Cuneo variety at altitudes up to 600 metres, and the planting of the indigenous Pinca variety above this level.
Environmental organisations and the Swiss and local governments began to subsidise chestnut farming in Ticino in the 1990s, in order to revitalise the industry. They recognised the cultural importance of the chestnut in Ticino, and the bio-diversity present in a healthy chestnut orchard.
Birds and bats
The older trees make natural homes for endangered birds and bats. And the grass that farmers sow between the trees attracts rabbits, martens, badgers and snakes.
The Ticino chestnut is a wholly organic product as well. The groves are officially classified by the federal government as woodland, which forbids the use of fertilisers.
A small company, Erboristi Lendi, has begun buying local chestnuts to make chestnut flour and pasta, and has plans to begin production of a chestnut jam. The company specialises in the imports of organic herbs and spices and has set up a packaging plant in Malcantone.
About a fifth of the chestnuts used in Lendi's products are grown locally, but the owner of the company, Peter Lendi, would like to buy more.
"The total harvest for fresh chestnuts in Ticino is about 35 or 36 tons, in a good year," says Lendi. "But most of them are sold fresh, and we get the small ones - that's between six and nine tonnes a year. And we need four fresh tons to make one dried ton. But our needs are much greater. We need between five and six tons of dried chestnuts."
Lendi says demand is growing as people are made aware of the chestnut's nutritional value, and that they are willing to pay more for premium, organic products.
A rosy future for the Ticino chestnut industry is a long way off though, even if there are glimmers of hope.
by Dale Bechtel