For centuries, the chestnut tree was the tree of life for the people of Ticino in southern Switzerland. Its story is told on the "chestnut trail".This content was published on March 21, 2002 - 17:47
The local forester, Carlo Scheggia, runs his hands over a weathered chestnut tree, as he surveys the trail.
"If only this tree could talk, it would have stories to tell," he says. "It has survived floods, forest fires, the struggles of families who used to fight over every bit of the tree, including the leaves and shells.
"But today," he continues, "even the fruit litters the ground. You can see the fatigue in the trunk because of everything it has gone through. You can lean against it, take its picture, or climb it to get a small impression of what it has experienced."
The chestnut trail was the brainchild of Scheggia, who wants to see the chestnut tree regain some of the respect it once had.
The path meanders along the peaceful mountain slopes of Ticino's Malcantone region - which is only a chestnut's throw from the hectic streets of the city of Lugano.
Lived on chestnuts
The trail is only a few years old - surprising since the chestnut for centuries played an integral role in Ticino. Hikers are reminded of the time when people living in the Ticino countryside lived on nothing but chestnuts for many months of the year.
"The trees are privately owned but the fields belong to the communities," says Scheggia, who adds that the chestnut was known as the poor man's bread.
"Each and every person needed the fruit from about 15 trees to feed himself for the six months when they depended on the chestnut."
Today, holidaymakers - and not the locals - gather the fallen fruit. It is nothing more than a pastime, because commercially, it's too costly to harvest the fruit by hand, and there are no longer any cultivated plantations suitable for machine harvesting.
Peter Lendi's company, Erboristi Lendi, imports organic herbs and spices and produces chestnut flour and pasta at a plant in the Malcantone village of Curio.
As Lendi reaches into a large sack of dried chestnuts, he explains that he has to import most of them because there simply aren't enough harvested in Ticino to meet his needs.
Part of the reason, he says, is that the local people don't want to be reminded of the past.
"The older generation doesn't want to know anything about the chestnut because it brings back bad memories of poor times when they had nothing to eat in winter but chestnuts. They don't want to hear any more about chestnuts. They think we are crazy when we tell them it is a very good food."
So good in fact that the peasants never starved. The different native varieties have few calories, are rich in protein and calcium and counterbalance fatty acids.
They also help people with heart or circulation problems, and rheumatism sufferers. But because chestnuts are rich in carbohydrates, Lendi says creativity is called for to make chestnut dishes that are not too rich. Gone are the days when most people in Ticino were labourers, requiring a high-energy diet.
"We suggest preparing chestnuts together with vegetables and an Indian curry. About four times as many vegetables as chestnuts, and you have quite a light dish to eat," he says.
"We have been experimenting with cooks and nutritionists to find out how best to prepare chestnuts for the modern kitchen."
Most of the 35 tons harvested annually in Ticino are sold fresh and roasted during the chestnut festivals held each autumn in the canton.
Back on the trail, Scheggia explains that a chestnut is not just a chestnut. There are about 15 different varieties native to the Malcantone region.
"These different varieties were an important part of the local people's diet. There were kinds which ripened early or late, there were small and large ones which were good dried or used as animal feed."
And traditionally, after St Martin's day in mid-November, goats were put out to graze in the chestnut groves. The fruit, leaves and shells had been gathered by this time.
The walk takes about five hours. Hikers trample chestnuts underfoot as they pass through chestnut groves and quaint villages. The houses in these villages are made of local stone and of course, chestnut wood. Surprisingly, there are no interpretive signposts marking the way.
"We didn't want to pollute the countryside with signs. It doesn't matter if someone taking the trail doesn't know everything there is to know about chestnuts by the end of the walk," says Scheggia.
"It's important that they enjoyed the walk, and that it awoke their senses. That is the most important thing."
Scheggia is often called upon to accompany school children on the trail. He says that he sits them down under one of the oldest, gnarled and twisted trees and tells them a story.
"They listen with wide open eyes. This is an important way to come into contact with nature," he says smiling.
"Not that we have to leave nature to itself. The chestnut tree was introduced by man about 2,000 years ago, and the groves can only survive if we take care of them."
by Dale Bechtel
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