Come the Apocalypse, how do you rate your chances of survival, assuming you made it through the worst? This is the scenario: there’s nothing man-made left on Earth – just you, some other hapless survivors and the natural environment. How are your basic human skills? You might want to think about honing them now, because you’ll need to be able to hunt (for skins as well as food), forage, build a shelter, light a fire and find drinking water. Good luck with all that.
Our forebears spent millions of years evolving these skills, and the absurdity is that most of us now can do none of the things that these so-called primitive hunter-gatherers excelled at. If they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be here today. We’re the primitive ones now: personally, some light foraging is all I would be able to offer my survival group, perhaps with a few short talks on nutrition for round-the-fire entertainment. We can operate machinery we don’t really understand and pass IT exams, but we have no idea how to be the human animals that we are.
These are the existential matters I’ve taken to ruminating on recently, what with rising food prices, peak oil, climate change and other looming disasters of our own making. I’ve come to the conclusion that self-sufficiency may well be the only way forward.
I’m not long back from Italy, where we have a house. It’s in a beautiful mountainous region; very rural, and very traditional. It is well known that Italians love food and love talking about food and how to cook it. In our village, which is fairly typical, the people are attuned to the seasons and the land and have impressive foraging and horticultural skills. If it grows and is edible, they know about it and they will find some creative way to incorporate it into their diet.
Our house is a converted water mill, over 500 years old. It still houses the original grinding stones, and the beams are huge chestnut trunks. We have chestnut trees in our garden and they are rightly protected by law. The sweet chestnut (not to be confused with the inedible horse chestnut) is, or was, hugely important to the region. In fact the castagna ensured the survival of the people on the land for thousands of years, being the staple crop. Planting chestnut trees is an act of selfless consideration – they bear no fruit for at least 15 years, and it takes around 50 years before they produce a decent harvest.
Chestnuts are not cultivated; they fall to the ground when they are ready and are available to foragers. Edible, free and versatile, the chestnut can be eaten raw, roasted or baked. It is also nutritious: unusually for a nut it contains significant amounts of vitamin C, as well as potassium, calcium and folate. On the downside, they are low in fat and protein, but they have lots of fibre and a relatively low glycaemic value of around 54.
The most common chestnut product is flour; hence the preponderance of once-working mills such as ours in this region of Tuscany. Thankfully there are still a few working mills and chestnut flour is available in local shops. This is beautiful flour. Other than drying and grinding, the chestnuts undergo no refinement. The flour is ideal for coeliacs or anyone avoiding gluten and can be used to make pasta and pancakes, or polenta. Because it is slightly sweet, it lends itself well to desserts. Chestnut cake is a favourite in the area, and is known as castagnaccio. There are variations on the basic recipe, but I found this very good one, requiring no sugar but containing some other excellent ingredients such as pine nuts. See:
Chestnut flour can be bought on-line, so no need to travel too far too find it. I’ll be buying some chestnut flour on my next Italian trip. If it is still available – the locals were telling us that last autumn the chestnut trees failed to produce any chestnuts at all. Not one. The chestnut tree has been hit by a blight caused by the fungus Cryphonectria parasitica (C. parasitica) They had never known anything like it, and although they no longer depend on the chestnut for their survival, they were truly saddened by this loss. Imagine if this occurred at a time when the castagna was all people had to eat, I said to a neighbour, Luigi. His laughing face turned dark. Fame, he said. Hunger.
Italians have long memories when it comes to hardship which is why they revere food, and the land that produces it. That is also why, in rural areas, there are always so many festivals dedicated to the harvest of single crops. In October, when the chestnut harvest begins, you’ll find people celebrating the festa della castagna. I really hope there is one this year.
Chestnuts photo: nuchylee/freedigitalphotos.net