The restaurant is hosting a special dinner tonight for a bunch of VIP’s from the Italian government throughout the country. Wanting to show off a little bit of what makes Liguria special, they’re throwing out a lot of fall favorites and foregoing the sort of “modern twist on local favorites” theme. Tonight is all Liguria, through and through, like Grandma used to make. Or Nonna for that matter.
All of this meant that yesterday Manuel and I had a mission. We were designated chestnut pickers. To the mountains outside town we went, about a 10 minute drive up those twisty, narrow roads that kept this region so isolated for so long. We parked the car, grabbed our baskets, and started walking to a childhood spot Manuel remembers as being great for chestnut picking, in addition to a place he once found a porcini mushroom he claims to have been at least 3 feet in diameter (The fish was THIS BIG…).
Regardless, this Jersey gal was ill-prepared for a chestnut picking expedition. One, it was cold up on that mountain, and the other, I had no idea what a chestnut looked like outside of my grandmother’s oven or a street cart in New York City. It was another reminder of the stark differences in food culture in Italy and the U.S. We don’t go and “find” our food very often, and when we do – pumpkins, apples, blueberries – we go to a farm and walk on paths and follow the instructions to do so in a somewhat sterile environment. We’re not exactly hiking 30 minutes to find a strawberry then go home. Here, this is how you do it – there are no chestnuts at the market as they are quite small this year, and someone needs to go and find them. Walking 45 minutes down a mountain is it– and quite a popular one for Ligurian kids, I was rewarded with some great views as I discovered a sign that made me really question the intelligence of this little trip.
There are wild boar in these woods. No problem, Manuel assured me. There are hunters out here to shoot them and control the population.
I’m not a runner. Not even close. And now I’m thinking of wild boar horn impalement, getting shot by an Italian hunter, and if I can climb a tree if the boar is chasing me. Will someone hear my screams for help? If a girl gets impaled in the forest will anyone hear it?
Now, this was all very amusing to Manuel as he watched me walk on tiptoes, vigilantly studying the surrounding undergrowth for signs of impending boar attacks. He assured me it was safe – “Do you think I want to die out here? No.” – and on we went.
Chestnuts, I’ve discovered, hurt. They are protected by spiny little sea urchin cases, and the way to get them out is akin to something of a soccer move, manipulating them with your feet until the nut pops out. I just grabbed them and threw them in my basket. They could do that at the restaurant. With gloves.
After our baskets were full, we made our way back to the car. We passed a hut where the father of a friend of Manuel’s does his work cutting tombstones (again, not scary at all). They talked a little, then I heard him ask if we’d seen any “cingiale in giro”. Have we seen any boar around?!
Needless to say, we were out of there, though Manuel again assured me that the man was kidding and that he hadn’t seen any boar either. The car packed full of chestnuts, a laughing Italian and a nervous and cold American girl, and we were on our way back down the mountain to heat, home and where we eat boar, not run from it.