Campora chestnut

Ark of taste
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The Campora chestnut, or marrone di Campora, is a variety of Castanea sativa from the hamlets of Campora, Vezzano, and Scurano, between Monte Fuso and the town of Neviano degli Arduini in Parma Province. This area is characterized by ideal northern exposures, soils of fine Ranzano sandstone, and moderate temperatures throughout the year, with cool summers and mild winters. The Campora variety belongs to the marron type of chestnut, which is larger, sweeter, easier to peel, and less starchy than the standard chestnut (in Italian, the latter is referred to as castagna rather than marrone). The trees are vigorous and can reach a height of 10-15 meters. The fruits are ellipsoidal and medium-sized with a rectangular hilum (the scar from where the fruit attaches to the inside of the spiny shell, known as the cupule), brown skin, and white meat. Each cupule contains up to three fruits. Harvest takes place in during the latter two thirds of October, during which time yields tend to be consistent and high. In the past, following the harvest, the chestnuts were preserved by immersing them in cold water for 9 days, changing the water every 3 days (the unhealthy fruits, being lighter, would float to the surface and could be eliminated) and then drying them and storing them in a cool place until the new year. The ease with which Campora chestnuts can be removed from the cupule and peeled makes this variety easy to market. These chestnuts are, and were traditionally, most often dried, boiled, roasted, or preserved in alcohol. They can also be ground into a flour suitable for bread making, or transformed into various processed products, including sweet or savory tortelli (stuffed pasta), jams, castagnaccio (a chestnut cake), marrons glacès, and chestnut liqueur.

The exact origins of the Campora chestnut are uncertain, but the centuries-old age of some of the trees suggests that this variety has a long history. The trend toward chestnut cultivation in the region began in the Middle Ages thanks to Matilda of Canossa (1046-1115) who understood the importance of these trees for mountain communities from both a gastronomic and economic point of view. Legend has it that the Countess Matilda herself was a great consumer of chestnuts. By the late 19th century, chestnut growing, though still held in high regard, was starting to decline; we know this from an 1870 treatise by the forester Carlo Siemoni. At the beginning of the 20th century, the famous agronomist Fabio Bocchialini testified in his writings to the worsening condition of chestnut groves and a trend toward the cultivation of crops that were easier to manage and more profitable, noting a significant drop in chestnut production due to the failure to plant new trees and care properly for existing ones. Even so, 1913, the Campora chestnut won first prize as the nation’s best chestnut at the Ministry of Agriculture’s exhibition in Rome. During the Second World War, many families in possession of the precious chestnut trees were forced for economic reasons to sell them as firewood, which further damaged the local tradition of chestnut cultivation.

Between 1985 and 1988, an investigation of the Campora chestnut variety suggested that the protection of this crop might help improve socioeconomic conditions for people living in the Parma Apennines, on the condition that various challenges linked to chestnut cultivation (chiefly phytosanitary issues) were addressed. The study indicated that the Campora variety had promising pomological characteristics that could facilitate commercialization. In 2004, the Monte Fuso voluntary forestry consortium was founded to protect, enhance, and promote the Campora chestnut, and around this time a census resulted in the identification of around 1,000 chestnut trees in Campora and several other municipalities around Monte Fuso. Nevertheless, since the 1980s and 90s, the abandonment of this rural mountain territory and of chestnut cultivation has continued inexorably, and the situation has only been aggravated by chestnut blight. The old age and generally poor health of the remaining trees present a clear challenge to the conservation of Campora chestnuts. The groves require urgent care, including significant pruning. The remaining Campora chestnuts are mostly consumed locally, though outsiders can taste them prepared in various ways at the annual Campora chestnut fair that has taken place at the end of October for over 40 years.

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Emilia Romagna

Production area:Campora