The Bread Tree
The European Chestnut may not be the obvious tree for an Italian garden as it is common in gardens across northern Europe in far milder climates. However, the chestnut tree can stake a claim to a large slice of Italian history both cultural and culinary.
The chestnut tree is native to Europe and can grow to more than 30m in the cooler, mountainous areas of Italy and can live for many years. The tree has long narrow and serrated leaves and bears yellow flowers in May and June which in turn form the famous chestnuts. The chestnuts are covered in a very spiny husk that possesses a pleasant butter yellow colour. The fruits ripen towards October and small stalls roasting this sweet nut can be found in many Italian cities from autumn until January and buying a small bag of roasted chestnuts has become an integral part of Italian culture in this period. Lovers can be found eating a bag of chestnuts during a stroll in the autumn, as an alternative to eating an ice cream during the warmer summer months. Although this is a romantic image, the fruit of the chestnut tree has served a far more important and practical purpose in the past – one of sheer survival!
To the Italians that inhabit the countryside this magnificent and un-demanding tree is known as the bread tree because for many centuries the chestnuts were roasted in huge numbers laid upon thin hazel branches over hot coals and they were then ground down into flour in order to make a kind of polenta. The flour could also be used to make bread, in the absence of grain flour. This polenta and bread formed the staple diet and the only carbohydrate intake of mountain communities and rendered the cultivation of this tree fundamental to their very existence.
Trees were planted in large numbers and allowed to grow until they reached around 10 – 15m tall and they would then have been literally decapitated to a height of around 3m during the winter to stunt vegetative growth and improve the size, quality and flavour of the trees' fruit – the chestnuts. These stunted yet high yielding trees are still farmed today in large fields (castagnetti) and can still be seen in small towns like Piancastagnaio (meaning: the plain of the chestnut fields) in Tuscany. The old men that generally tend these castagnetti also thin the large branches of the tree annually and then use the wood as firewood, so the tree provides them with more than just food. In fact the roofs of houses during the earlier centuries were generally constructed using chestnut timber as it is a very durable and easily available timber. Therefore, it is safe to say that the chestnut tree has held a very important and somewhat symbolic place in Italy’s cultural history.
In a gardening context in Italy the chestnut tree can survive on very baron and poor soil but requires a cool winter and moisture to form healthy fruits. A small wood comprising of chestnut trees begins the year with a bright lime-green leaf canopy and then ends the year in a stunning butter-yellow that sits magnificently against the clear blue skies of autumn. The leaves tend to render the soil beneath the tree canopy slightly acidic which will favour acid-loving plants but hinder most alkaline loving Mediterranean plants. If you were to choose this plant to create a small wood you will be granted with the many useful aspects to this tree, both romantic, practical and edible.