francis pettitt

Old Chestnuts – article by Francis Pettitt

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The bread of the poor, the majestic chestnut fed them with its fruits for without the chestnut’s support there would have been famine on a huge scale

The continuing refugee crisis affecting what Churchill termed “the soft underbelly of Europe”( i.e. Italy) and, in particular, the island of Lampedusa – that ancestral territory of the writer of one of the greatest novels this country has produced, “The Leopard” (who doesn’t remember the film version starring Burt Lancaster?) – was evidenced on a large scale among these mountains almost seventy years ago when “gli sfollati”, those fleeing from the bombing of war-torn cities like Pisa and Pistoia found a temporary refuge among the villages and forests of the Val di Lima.

Even in Longoio, the area between my house and La Serra had large camps set up according to eye-witness accounts. But how could these refuges feed themselves in the midst of the devastating poverty that was once so prevalent in Italy and was now exacerbated by an increasingly bloody civil war?

The bread of the poor, the majestic chestnut fed them with its fruits for without the chestnut’s support there would have been famine on a huge scale. We are not referring just to caldarroste (roast chestnuts): the chestnut was harvested, peeled from its spiky case and dried in a special building called metato to then be milled to produce flour which could be used to produce anything from necci (pancakes) to bread.

Nearby Colognora in Val Pescaglia has a fascinating museum dedicated to the chestnut illustrating the importance the tree has had in the life and culture of this part of the world.

The chestnut museum was set up with the aim of collecting, studying and informing the public about everything connected with the precious chestnut, now so sadly threatened by disease and wholesale neglect.

The museum occupies seven rooms of an old building at the entrance to the village and also includes a thatched charcoal burners’ hut in the forest.

To visit the museum you should phone up beforehand on 0583 358159 or 0583 954465 (or send an email to to confirm it’s actually open.

I could describe what’s in the museum but I think it’s best if you see the photos I took of its exhibits, which include not just objects related with chestnut cultivation and flour production but also many items dealing with domestic rural life and crafts.

Colognora is worth visiting just for itself and its highly picturesque location and atmosphere. The borgo’s origins  date back to the second century BC when Roman armyex-legionaries settled in the territory of Lucca. The name “Colognora” indicates a clear Latin origin (Coloniola = small colony). The oldest historical reference to Colognora is dated 29 August 828 and is preserved in the archives of the Archbishop of Lucca.

The village houses are characterized by arches, terraces and loggias that together create a unique atmosphere. No wonder Colognora was specially chosen by film director Spike Lee, for the setting of his film Miracle at St. Anna (2008).

Now’s the start in this part of the world for the castagnate, the chestnut festivals which evoke old times and celebrate the wonderful chestnut forests. We’ll be definately going to some of them – my particular favourite is the one at Lupinaia, but all the festivals have something special to offer and are real fun.


More articles from Francis Pettitt can be read on “From London to Longoio (and Lucca and beyond)

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