Switzerland celebrates the chestnut

I love one-trick food festivals. They bring out my penchant for taking a single food ingredient to levels I would never envision on my own.

Take chestnuts. They are sold just-roasted, in little packets, in Basel’s Old Town. I enjoy munching on still-warm chestnuts while strolling around wintry streets. But it took a festival devoted to all things chestnut— a one-day sweep of the annual fair in Ascona, Switzerland in canton Ticino —to broaden my horizons.

Ascona’s Sagra delle Castagne

Roasting chestnuts in AsconaMy best “finds” at the fair were chestnut honey and cookies.

First, at the friendly stand of tigusto SA, a local “bio” firm which also sells La Pinca chestnut products, I bought cookies. They were made with a recipe from Hildegard von Bingen, one of my saintly heroes. She was elevated just yesterday to “Doctor of the Church” by Pope Benedict, but I admire her for her forward-thinking medical and pharmacological practices.

Later, I tasted chestnut honey, its flavor not very sweet and with an almost bitter aftertaste. The vendor assured me the honey cures a cough, which is good, but I have lustier plans for it. I will use the honey as a topping for a sandwich of walnut bread with Gorgonzola and arugula, a preparation Serious Eats celebrates as food porn; and in the Tuscan way, drizzle it over a piece of Pecorino with fresh pears.

For centuries the chestnut was a primary source of nutrition in the mountainous areas of the Mediterranean, where grains did not grow well. The Romans cultivated chestnut trees in the Alps. Well into the nineteenth century, chestnuts were the mainstay of a diet for an impoverished rural population. These days, its traditional uses are on show for tourists, along with fancier preparations. Ascona’s fair, Sagra delle Castagne, offers all things chestnut, from pastas to beer, to jams and marmalade, to desserts like vermicelli, or simply roasted—and all accompanied by strolling brass bands and folk music.

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Chestnuts still in their burs
Italian chestnuts
Roasting chestnuts
Chestnut cookies
Ascona chestnut fair
Chestnuts roasting
Ascona chestnut fair
Tasting chestnut honey
Ascona chestnut fair
Ascona promenade
Chestnut beer

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This post is my contribution to a photo essay blog carnival sponsored by Monika Fuchs.

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