In Search of Chestnuts in Italy

April 15, 2009

Carolinas Chapter-TACF Member Doug Gillis vacationed with his family in Italy in April 2009. He realized when in Rome, that he should do as the Romans did–look for sweet chestnuts. Actually, Hill Craddock, Professor of Biology at the University of Tennessee, Chattanooga inspired him to do so. Later, when Doug and Marsha, his wife, were staying at Castelrotto, a farm house villa in Tuscany, he found European chestnuts there, though the villa owner thought that the trees did not grow at low elevations. Later, when in Cinque Terre, Doug early one morning, while Marsha slept, climbed high above the town of Riomaggiore and found many European chestnut trees, some growing wild and some being tended by vineyard and olive orchard growers.

Details of the Trip

  • Doug Gillis’s first taste of European sweet chestnuts in Italy was near Trevi Fountain in Rome. He and Marsha, his wife, had walked there after touring the Pantheon. Doug could hardly wait for the man to serve him some roasted chestnuts.
  • Though Doug found no European chestnut trees in Rome, he saw evidence of them after he and Marsha traveled to Tuscany and visited the hill town, Orvieto. A shop owner had ceramic dishes on display which had colored imprints of chestnut leaves fired into the clay. Since the dishes were locally made, European chestnut trees, in Doug’s mind, had to be nearby.
  • Doug and Marsha stayed at Castelrotto, a farm house villa in Tuscany, near the town of Pallazone. Many vineyards and olive orchards filled the farm land surrounding the villa. Searching for European chestnuts on the farm property lead Doug to look where land between orchards had not been cleared of native trees.
  • On an early morning walk, while accompanied by the owner’s dog, Cici, Doug checked along the pathways and the uncultivated slopes separating the various olive orchards on the farm. The first evidence that chestnut trees were nearby were the dry, brown leaves left over from fall and burrs nearby, empty of their nuts.
  • Though it was early April, the several majestic, though blighted European chestnut trees growing at the edge of the olive orchard and the saplings springing up at the base of the trees were bursting forth with young, green, new leaves.
  • After a week’s stay at Castelrotto, Doug and Marsha traveled to Cinque Terre, the five lands, located on the northwest coast of Italy. While Marsha slept Easter Monday morning, Doug climbed high above Riomaggiore in search of European chestnuts. Hill Craddock had told Doug he would find them there.
  • Some of the trees Doug found were growing in the edge of tended olive orchards. The one pictured had been cut back to a stump. As Hill Craddock explains, chestnut is typically coppiced, or cut back in this manner, for pole-sized timber. The wood is used in coppice craft which includes everything from wicker work (for baskets and furniture) to bean pole and tomato stakes, to posts and braces for orchard supports, to construction timbers, to saw lumber. Coppice is cut on a 12 to 15 year rotation, with a few stems being allowed to grow for two or three cycles before cutting.
  • On the return trip from the hills above Riomaggiore, Doug noticed the chestnut tree growing next to a house, whose owner was tending it and keeping it healthy as possible. Doug’s thoughts were that the home owner revered the tree, the same as any one would do with a species that is struggling to survive and can continue to survive with the help of people who care.
  • Doug and Marsha hiked the trails linking the five lands of Cinque Terre, from Riomaggiore on the south end to Monterrosso on the north end. While looking for secure footing on the narrow trails, Doug scouted the nearby slopes for European chestnuts. He noticed a single chestnut tree along nine kilometers of trail linking the five towns. The European chestnut was located on the downhill side of the pathway near the crest of the trail between Vernazza and Monterrosso. The tree, shown in the gallery below, which was just leafing out, could be called the “Lonesome Chestnut.” The truth though is that many more European chestnuts survive nearby–a promise for the future revival of the European chestnut.