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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"The Truest Hypocrisy" - The Russia-NATO Clash Seen From Moscow

Russia has decided to cut off relations with the Western military alliance. But Moscow says it was NATO who really wanted the break based on its own internal rationale.

NATO chief Stoltenberg and Russian Foregin Minister Lavrov

Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS via ZUMA
Pavel Tarasenko and Sergei Strokan

MOSCOW — The Russian Foreign Ministry's announcement that the country's permanent representation to NATO would be shut down for an indefinite period is a major development. But from Moscow's viewpoint, there was little alternative.

These measures were taken in response to the decision of NATO on Oct. 6 to cut the number of personnel allowed in the Russian mission to the Western alliance by half. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the removal of accreditations was from eight employees of the Russian mission to NATO who were identified as undeclared employees of Russian intelligence." We have seen an increase in Russian malicious activity for some time now," Stoltenberg said.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called NATO's expulsion of Russian personnel a "ridiculous stunt," and Stoltenberg's words "the truest hypocrisy."

In announcing the complete shutdown in diplomacy between Moscow and NATO, the Russian Foreign Ministry added: "The 'Russian threat' is being hyped in strengthen the alliance's internal unity and create the appearance of its 'relevance' in modern geopolitical conditions."

The number of Russian diplomatic missions in Brussels has been reduced twice unilaterally by NATO in 2015 and 2018 - after the alliance's decision of April 1, 2014 to suspend all practical civilian and military cooperation between Russia and NATO in the wake of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Diplomats' access to the alliance headquarters and communications with its international secretariat was restricted, military contacts have frozen.

Yet the new closure of all diplomatic contacts is a perilous new low. Kommersant sources said that the changes will affect the military liaison mission of the North Atlantic alliance in Moscow, aimed at promoting the expansion of the dialogue between Russia and NATO. However, in recent years there has been no de facto cooperation. And now, as Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has announced, the activities of the military liaison mission will be suspended. The accreditation of its personnel will be canceled on November 1.

NATO told RIA Novosti news service on Monday that it regretted Moscow's move. Meanwhile, among Western countries, Germany was the first to respond. "It would complicate the already difficult situation in which we are now and prolong the "ice age," German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told reporters.

"Lavrov said on Monday, commenting on the present and future of relations between Moscow and the North Atlantic Alliance, "If this is the case, then we see no great need to continue pretending that any changes will be possible in the foreseeable future because NATO has already announced that such changes are impossible.

The suspension of activities of the Russian Permanent Mission to NATO, as well as the military liaison and information mission in Russia, means that Moscow and Brussels have decided to "draw a final line under the partnership relations of previous decades," explained Andrei Kortunov, director-general of the Russian Council on Foreign Affairs, "These relations began to form in the 1990s, opening channels for cooperation between the sides … but they have continued to steadily deteriorate over recent years."

Kortunov believes the current rupture was promoted by Brussels. "A new strategy for NATO is being prepared, which will be adopted at the next summit of the alliance, and the previous partnership with Russia does not fit into its concept anymore."

The existence and expansion of NATO after the end of the Cold War was the main reason for the destruction of the whole complex of relations between Russia and the West. Today, Russia is paying particular attention to marking red lines related to the further steps of Ukraine's integration into NATO. Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov previously stated this, warning that in response to the alliance's activity in the Ukrainian direction, Moscow would take "active steps" to ensure its security.

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