In the Spirit of Chestnut Season

Weeks 4-6 at Brunnenburg Castle – Traditional Alpine Farming

(Approximately 6 min read)

One of the cutest streets in my hometown of Montclair, New Jersey is Chestnut Street. It’s a bustling side-street with great restaurants and artsy shops. For my entire 18 years of living there, I couldn’t have told you if there was a single chestnut tree on that street, or even in the entirety of my home town, for that matter. In fact, until it was chestnut harvesting season at Brunnenburg Farm I couldn’t even have told you a chestnut grows in a husk, what that husk looks like, or what the nut tastes like.

Postcard of Bloomfield Ave in 1900s from the Montclair History Center

I don’t know for sure, but I would bet that Chestnut Street is no longer chestnut lined. An attempt to commercialize Japanese trees in the early 1900s introduced a funghi that struck the native trees with efficiency. By the end of World War Two, nearly all American chestnut trees had died. A similar blight spread throughout Europe in the early 1940s, 50s, and 60s. At Brunnenburg, several different funghi resistant varieties are grown and I spent the last few weeks on a crash course learning how to harvest, prepare, and eat them.

The first day of chestnut work, I started my morning watching the train leave the station a minute too early for me to catch. Rather than wait thirty minutes for the next one, I decided to bike the hour and a half to Merano on my basket-laden junk bike. It was a beautiful day and I thought nothing of the decision. However, after a full day of harvesting chestnuts, I felt I had made a mistake. The return 30 kilometers were an exercise in mental fortitude.

Equipped with thick gloves, a plastic bin, and a cross shoulder collection sack, we started down the steep hill to the bottom of the castle’s property. We began canvasing the grass and fallen leaves for sharp studded pods which were scattered all around us. Each pod had to be hand picked from the forest floor and pried open. As the husk was torn open, spikes often pricking through the thick gloves, three shiny chestnut gems revealed themselves, waiting to be plucked into my canvas bag. I was surprised to find the sheen of the interior of the pod almost looking like fur, glistening as I turned it over in my glove-protected hand.

It was back-breaking work. My spine and hamstrings strained from repeatedly bending and carrying the harvested chestnuts up the steep incline. Once full, the sack weighed nearly 5kg and became precarious to maneuver. Once full, gymnastics were required to add the new pods without spilling the already collected batch.

Even though it was very physically taxing work, it quickly became one of my favorite tasks, and thankfully so, since it was the assignment for several weeks. The chestnut orchard is on a quiet idyllic part of the farm, in the shadow of the castle, sheltered from the winds moving through the valley. There was the peaceful dripping sound of the stream that filters through the property, birds chirping, and the distant bells of sheep grazing other parts of the property.

The most stable video I could manage while navigating the rolling rocks and uneven terrain

The calming rustling of the leaves in the wind was interrupted by the sound of the dislodged husks as they came down in a dangerous hail around us. On the near misses, I whisper thank-you’s to the grand trunks of the trees for sparing me a spikey concussion. As the pods fell from the tall trees, they often exploded open, littering the floor. The exploded husks remind me of something I can’t quite put my finger on: Is it a cut open tennis ball or kermit the frog with his jaw babbling to his puppet friends? For the ones really exploded, I’m reminded of the monster from Stranger Things. Often I would find chestnuts looking oddly like freshly polished hardwood floors, resting mysteriously amid muddy leaves and dusty forrest debris.

Days of canvasing up and down the steep hillside were inter-dispersed with sorting. Nik the Farmer explained that the farm contains four different varieties of chestnuts: French, South Tirolian, Yellow, and horse (not pictured, inedible).

We spilled bin after bin of collected chestnuts into larger bins and soaked them with the hose. With a giant strainer, we scooped the chestnuts that floated into a bin marked for animal feed. In dialect, they call the floaters “the suffocated ones” because they are either rotten or worms have already eaten out the meat. On occasion we would see tiny little white worms crawling out from inside a chestnut. As the days of collecting went on, I started to notice the sawdust of the burrowing worms protruding from the tiny holes where the worms had begun to feast.

After the suffocation test, we poured out bucket after bucket of chestnuts onto a towel lined table and sorted our keep into small, medium, and large sized. This is necessary to batch the nuts properly for roasting times, but was a surprisingly difficult task. We would start by plucking out the outliers: the giant ones and tiny ones. But quickly, the relative sense of which we’re big and which we’re small completely faded and all of the remaining appeared identical. When reunited with other sorted chestnuts in the bin, we questioned how we could have thought that this one was large and this one small.

A different day of harvesting ended with roasting the already sorted chestnuts. A small machine was used to score the chestnuts, to avoid explosion in the heat as they are cooked. Small metal fire pits with giant rustic hole-lined roasting pans were put to work. The chestnuts were roasted on the open fire, and the Christmas carol, was circling through my mind, charmingly on repeat, while I had my very first taste of a chestnut. It’s cakey and filling. Warming to my insides as the weather was shifting colder and the leaves were beginning to redden around us.

Back at the bottom of the hill, I felt like a bandit smuggling as much of the loot into my get away sack before someone came to catch me. Following the trail of husks up and across the ground, I gained a very literal sense of the expression “getting lost in the weeds.” The only thing bringing me back to any sense of time was the ringing of distant church bells in the valley.

Another day, we stationed the fire pit at the top of the hill, near the tourist village of Dorf Tirol. We sold freshly roasted chestnuts and homemade pear juice to passing visitors. Soon after, the farm hosted a Törggelen, a traditional autumn feast that celebrates the harvest, where we got to taste chestnut cake, and Knödel. I missed a lunch of chestnut soup (I look forward to trying to make it on my own), but was able to try “cuori di castagne” (chestnut hearts) in Bolzano.

As for that Christmas carol which was inescapably looping through my mind these past few weeks, I often caught my whistling the tune while alone collecting chestnuts. I kept hearing the song sung in my Dad’s voice:

Chestnuts roasting on an open fire,

jackfrost niping at your nose…

When I was in high school, my Dad lived in a historic home, built in the early 1900s. IT was likely constructed with chestnut wood framing the windows and stair banisters. It was a sturdy home, clearly built to hold warmth before the invention of HVAC systems. Just after Thanksgiving, my Dad would start blasting a classic Christmas station on the Sirus Satellite radio everyday. The Yule Log DVD (I think we owned multiple seasons) was always on the flat screen TV, which was ironically mounted above the real fireplace, and practically giving off heat.

Though I mostly took in the sounds of nature while harvesting, a few times I popped in a headphone to listen to a podcast. One message felt really apt while I was reminiscing about my Dad and the Christmas music that used to drive me nuts. In a talk about meditation, the speaker said “life is so difficult,” and I thought of all the grief and loss in my family and so many other families. But with that difficulty he concluded, “how can you be anything but kind?” And from now on, chestnuts, with their warmth and Christmas-y vibes, will make me wonder, “how can you be anything but kind?”

Hey there!

I’m Jacquie and I’m an American hockey player living in Bolzano, Italy. I write about hockey, sustainability, and food.

More About Me

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