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.