chestnut

Castanea sativa

 

December

FRANCE
Corsica
Bucugna (Bocognano)  Fiera di a Castagna
The 2021 celebration has been cancelled due to Covid
 
One of the ancient villages of the Castagniccia (area of traditional chestnut cultivation), the village of Bocognano (Bucugna in Corsica), half way between the coastal town of Ajaccio and Corte in the heart of the mountains, celebrates its chestnut heritage with a festival traditionally held during the first weekend of December.
In existence since 1982, and organised by the Foyer Rural U Castagnu, the Fiera di a Castagna  or Foire de la Chataigne, is one of Corsica's oldest and best known fairs.  Typically hosting over 150 exhibitors, who come from all over Corsica to sell a variety of agricultural products, as well as chestnuts and chestnut-related products, it attracts some 20,000 visitors each year and has become one of island's key winter events.
The 40th chestnut festival is scheduled to go ahead in 2022
[https://www.fieradiacastagna.com/]
[https://www.fieradiacastagna.com/Communique-annulation-2021_a149.html]
[https://www.visit-corsica.com/en/infotour/pcu/id/134/idEz/27659/
page/5/Plan-your-trip/To-see-and-do/All-cultural-heritage]

 

CHESTNUT CULTIVATION IN CORSICA

The sweet chestnut is a true native of Corsica and has been present on the island since prehistoric times (1).  It was being cultivated during the Roman era, but under Italian domination large-scale cultivation was introduced by the Genoese in the mid-16th C.   

 

Until this time Corsican life was typified by an extensive 'silvo-pastoral system with a double transhumance' (2), in which land was held communally, and people and their animals moved, according to the seasons between winter grazing lands on the coastal plains and the mountain region (characterized by maquis vegetation) in summer.

Corsicans were perceived by the ruling Genoese however, to be lazy as well as 'backward, amoral, and violent savages reluctant to adopt civilized agriculture and modern social institutions such as land, property, wage labour or capital accumulation' (3).  It was decided that chestnut cultivation would be a means of settling and pacifying them and planting was decreed by the first Governor of Genoa in 1548. (4)  This also facilitated the appropriation of fertile coastal lands (which could be used for agriculture) to suit colonial purposes.

It took over 100 years and five decrees before chestnut cultivation was fully adopted, but the Corsican shepherds were to succeed in incorporating it fully and dynamically into their way of life so that chestnut culture and pastoralism became complimentary.

For four centuries the growing of chestnut trees could be regarded in one sense as a political tool - initially an instrument of domination under successive Genoese and French rule, but becoming a powerful and abiding symbol of resistance and identity as chestnut culture was developed by Corsicans themselves.

A property system was devised (still in operation today) which meant that chestnut trees belonged to the individual or families that planted them, but common land remained the property of the village. Rules that were beneficial to the community as a whole governed the way in which these planted areas, the chestnut groves or castegnatu were managed.  Areas around young trees were fenced and shepherds controlled the circulation of their animals under mature trees and had to ensure their animals were kept out of unfenced forest at harvest time.  This allowed for the mutually beneficial existence of trees and animals.  

Pastoralists then, became chestnut growers and during the 18th and 19th centuries a unique socio-cultural system based on chestnut cultivation developed.  Created over time by the selection and exchange of particular varieties, chosen and named for specific qualities (a source of intense local pride), and reproduced by grafting, then carefully maintained by pruning, the castegnatu, were intensively managed and the villages which had been created amidst them along the ancient mountainous transhumance routes prospered.

 

By the end of the 18th C Corsica supported the highest population densities in Europe with some 140 inhabitants per sq km. (5)

 

While strong and durable chestnut timber was used for many practical purposes from the construction of houses and 

furniture to wine casks, the nutritious fruit (nuts) the trees produced each year provided food (in their whole form and as flour which could be transformed into dishes such as polenta) for people and their animals (sheep, goats and pigs) as well as products that could be traded with lowland villages for other goods such as wine and olive oil. 

 

It is reported that a traditional wedding lunch during the19th C, might comprise 'no fewer than 22 different courses containing chestnuts as the main ingredient'. (6)

 

Under French rule however, from 1768, it was chestnut cultivation that was seen to be both the cause of the island's economic and moral malaise - the French regarded the chestnut as the 'food of laziness' (7) - and the trees themselves as a problem since they provided a refuge and food for rebels in times of conflict. In 1771 Louis XV issued a decree restricting new plantations, but it wasn't successful and chestnut cultivation, having by now become a means for local people to assert self determination as well as identity, continued.  

As well as supporting everyday existence by providing a source of food, animal products and income, 'the castegnatu ... consistently acted as an organizing principle of the individual life cycle, village livelihood and economic exchanges, labor hierarchies and genealogies.' (8)  Very long-lived, chestnuts 'represented the link between generations because a tree planted and grafted by an individual was supposed to benefit the next four generations'. (9)

 

Until the mid 19th C the trees had been viewed unfavourably by the political and social elite but after this time this view changed and the chestnut groves were redefined as part of the nation's forest wealth which could also be confiscated for forestry purposes.  At the same time the castegnatu began to decline - the industrial revolution and rise of new industries encouraged emigration away from the villages to the towns and further afield. By the the beginning of the 20th C timber from decaying trees was being sold as a source of raw material for local tannin industries. (10)

 

The great loss of life caused by the World War I contributed to the decline and abandonment of the woods (11) causing the collapse of most of Corsica's castegnatu and of traditional chestnut cultivation. 

Despite years of neglect however, and though suffering in many cases from crown die back and other diseases (which have become an increasingly serious problem today), the natural resilience of the chestnut tree and its strategy for survival enabled many to rejuvenate themselves through coppice shoots and the 1980s saw a resurgence of interest by local people in their cultivation and management.

A new 'chestnut economy' combining inherited knowledge and practices with various innovations, plus links to new markets and new  social and commercial networks and organizations - for example the promotion of pork products, the distinctive taste of which is due to the pigs' chestnut-rich diet - has arisen and become significant in a movement reaffirming cultural identity.

 

For more information about chestnuts and other chestnut festivals see October and November

Sources:

  1.Peters, Y., 2005, 'I Muvrini and Corsica, the Chestnut Tree'.

     www.terracorsa.info/chestnut/chestnut.html states that pollen               evidence has indicated that chestnuts were present in Corsica in         Neolithic times.

  2. Michon, G., 2011, 'Revisiting the resilience of chestnut forests in          Corsica: from social-ecological systems theory to political                    ecology'  Ecology and Society 16(2): 5. [online] URL:                              http://www.ecologyandsociety. org/vol16/iss2/art5/

  3. op. cit.

  4. Peters, Y., 2005, adds that 'all farmers and landowners on Corsica had          to plant four trees yearly: a chestnut, an olive, a fig and mulberry-tree.'

  5. Michon, G., 2011.

  6. Schapira, C., 1979, La bonne Cuisine Corse, Solar, Paris.

     op.cit

  7. Michon, G., 2011.

  8. op. cit.

  9. op. cit.

10. op cit.

11.Peters, Y., 2005.

12. op. cit.

13. Schapira, C., 1979, La bonne Cuisine Corse, Solar, Paris.

Sweet chestnut Corsica 2017.jpg
Marron glaces 2017.jpg

Marron glacés

Bocognano chestnut woods Corsica 2017.jpg

Chestnut woods around Bocognano, Corsica

Farine_de_châtaigne_corse.jpgd.jpg

Corsican chestnut flour

CHESTNUT FLOUR

Used to make among other things, bread, pulenda (polenta), cakes and pastries, beer and liqueurs, the production of chestnut flour was highly significant in Corsican life, giving rise to the French term for the chestnut tree"arbre à pain", literally 'bread tree'. (12.)

It is reported that at the end of 20th C, 85% (1,200 tonnes) of the chestnuts gathered in Corsica were ground into flour and that almost all of the 300 tonnes of flour this produced was consumed in Corsica, with only a small proportion exported to mainland France. (13)

 

In order to produce flour, after gathering in October and November, chestnuts are first placed on wooden slats in a drying loft, the grataghju, above a carefully tended slow-burning fire, to dry out thoroughly for about 25 days to a month.  The chestnuts are then shelled and put in a machine that blows away remnants of the skin (containing tannin and very bitter tasting) that surrounds the inner 'nut'. After transport to a traditional mill, the chestnuts are heated in an oven before being ground into flour between heavy mill stones.

Today Corsica's chestnut flour, referred to as farina castagnina corsa or farine de châtaigne corse carries the French designation AOC (Appellation d'origine controlee) and the European AOP (Appellation d'origine protegee)

In summary, although Corsica's chestnut woods are often regarded as 'natural' and do indeed contain trees that have arisen naturally from seedlings, they cannot really be labelled 'wild' since they are the result of a specific social and agrarian system, an interaction between trees and people developed over centuries and which is still evolving.