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food / travel

In Italian Forests, Where The "Bread Of The Poor" Grows

At the chestnut museum in Colognora
At the chestnut museum in Colognora
Giorgio Boatti

LAURINO — On the way to the mill, I stopped in Stazzema, in the heart of the Apuan Alps, where it was raining. I followed the step-by-step directions that Silvia gave me. She knows the trail well, as she and her partner Alex decided to move to the mill five years ago. This is "Friar's Mill," where for centuries the residents of the area have gathered chestnuts from the woods to grind them into flour.

After years of neglect, the mountain community restored the building and brought the old mill back into operation, deciding that someone needed to come to live and work here.

So Alex and Silvia stepped up. Alex Galeffi, 42, was born in Lido di Camaiore and studied and worked in Florence, where his career in IT felt too confining. He met Silvia during a retreat in the Apuan Alps, where she was working, and they've been together ever since. They recently bought a house above the mill and now live there, milling in the winter and working as environmental guides for school groups and tourists who come up during the rest of the year.

For Pietrasanta native Silvia Malquori, 38, perhaps chestnuts had always been part of her destiny because after studying forestry science in Florence, they became her dissertation topic.

Chestnuts as a way of life

Chestnut trees have had a significant presence in Italy for thousands of years. The trees originally came from China to Turkey, and then evolved as the Castanea Sativa — known commonly as the sweet chestnut — which spread throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. The ancient Romans adored them, and Quintus Gargilius Martialis, Virgil and Pliny all mentioned the nut in some way.

The chestnut boom actually coincided with the decline of feudal civilization, when urban populations increased and oak trees were deforested. Acorns were eaten by pigs and wild boars, which ensured significant consumption of meat in castles. They were replaced by wheat fields in the lowlands and chestnuts in hills and mountains. At a time when corn and potatoes weren't readily available, bread was made with chestnuts. It was the "bread of the poor," and fed multitudes. All that was necessary was to bring chestnuts to the mill and grind them.

It's grinding season now at the mill, and Alex shows me the great millstone that used to be powered by a water wheel but is now electric. Once started, turning round and round, it produces a fine flour. Next to the grindstone there are containers, carved out of chestnut logs, where the flour was stored for a long time. It can last longer than any other kind.

This is because chestnut flour, when pressed and without any contact with air, becomes as hard as marble. In fact, when it is transported it's in tablet shapes similar to bricks. Then, as needed, you can scratch off enough with a special instrument to bake your bread, or make the famed necci — chestnut fritters.

Italy once produced 800,000 tons of chestnuts, but now that number is just 80,000, and that's without taking into account how the gall wasp affected crops until it was defeated by a larva imported from the East. At any rate, we are the primary growers in Europe, and our varieties have a protected geographical indication (IGP) status, as well as a protected designation of origin (DOP).

I want to know everything, absolutely everything, about chestnuts, so I continue on my way. In Colognora di Pescaglia, a hilltop village where time seems to have stopped, Angelo and Roberto Frati have created, with infinite patience, an amazing museum dedicated to chestnuts.

It's divided into two sections that demonstrate its use for food and the other ways past generations used it in daily life. Because chestnut wood was, up until half a century ago, the plastic before there was plastic, there are tubs, barrels, and tools for farming and other crafts. The tannin extracted from the bark was used for tanning hides, as well as in the pharmaceutical and ship building industries. Chestnut coal was used in forges and was therefore indispensable in iron manufacturing.

Near here, I'm told, there is a forge where the same family has worked for centuries. It's still the same as when Ludovico Ariosto was sent to Castelnuovo di Garfagnana as governor. That was five centuries ago, give or take a year.

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Livestream Shopping Is Huge In China — Will It Fly Elsewhere?

Streaming video channels of people shopping has been booming in China, and is beginning to win over customers abroad as a cheap and cheerful way of selling products to millions of consumers glued to the screen.

A A female volunteer promotes spring tea products via on-line live streaming on a pretty mountain surrounded by tea plants.

In Beijing, selling spring tea products via on-line live streaming.

Xinhua / ZUMA
Gwendolyn Ledger

SANTIAGOTikTok, owned by Chinese tech firm ByteDance, has spent more than $500 million to break into online retailing. The app, best known for its short, comical videos, launched TikTok Shop in August, aiming to sell Chinese products in the U.S. and compete with other Chinese firms like Shein and Temu.

Tik Tok Shop will have three sections, including a live or livestream shopping channel, allowing users to buy while watching influencers promote a product.

This choice was strategic: in the past year, live shopping has become a significant trend in online retailing both in the U.S. and Latin America. While still an evolving technology, in principle, it promises good returns and lower costs.

Chilean Carlos O'Rian Herrera, co-founder of Fira Onlive, an online sales consultancy, told América Economía that live shopping has a much higher catchment rate than standard website retailing. If traditional e-commerce has a rate of one or two purchases per 100 visits to your site, live shopping can hike the ratio to 19%.

Live shopping has thrived in China and the recent purchases of shopping platforms in some Latin American countries suggests firms are taking an interest. In the United States, live shopping generated some $20 billion in sales revenues in 2022, according to consultants McKinsey. This constituted 2% of all online sales, but the firm believes the ratio may become 20% by 2026.

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