The chestnut tree is one of the most useful and beautiful trees the world has ever known. Their nuts can be used as a food source or ground into flour to make pancakes or bread and their wood was used in some of the most exquisite buildings and furniture throughout the world. The tree was important to both animals and humans and towns sprung up around chestnut trees.
Nowhere was this more apparent than in northern Italy. Located near the Northern Apennine Mountains in the provinces of Modena and Bologna was what was known as the Chestnut Civilization. The chestnut trees that called this area home preferred the higher elevations and produced the finest sweet chestnuts in the world. The wood made for excellent timber and its tannins were excellent for tanning leather. The tree groves were ideally suited for beehives and the honey produced in these hives was a rich, dark-colored honey that like the chestnuts themselves was second to none.
During the autumn harvest season travelers would come from miles around to get their hands on sweet chestnuts and honey. This sparked a whole economy around the trees, something the locals cashed in on. The town of Zoccoa was the epicenter of this economy and its market was the largest around. Zoccoa was ideally situated at an elevation of about ½ a mile and is still around today, though the market is not.
The chestnut trees that call the area home are still there, though it is only locals now that come to visit mainly to stroll the grounds though the sweet chestnut is still a staple of the local cuisine. Tigella is a rounded bread baked in a chestnut leaf and borlengo is a thin, crusty crepe filled with cunza (lard, garlic, rosemary and parmesan cheese) and many towns in the area claim it as their own invention including Zoccoa. Evidence suggests that this dish may have predated any claim and actually hails from neolithic times but one can’t let that get in the way of a good story.
Thanks in part to the elevation the fungal blight that has affected the chestnut trees in North America has not touched these magnificent trees. The cooler temperatures at their elevation prevent that from happening. One can only wonder what could have happened with the chestnut tree in this country had the blight not occurred. We may have had our own chestnut civilization here in the United States.