Sunday, 7 October 2007

Roasted Chestnuts - The "Cheschtele Muni"

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Before maize and potatoes became the normal daily food in the southern valleys of the alps at the beginning of the 20th century, chestnuts was one of the basic foods. Historical documents show that chestnut flour could already be bought at the markets of Locarno and Bellinzona in the Italian speaking part of Switzerland. In an official document dated 1378 the chestnut was mentioned as being interest-bearing.

In the last century the inhabitants of the Tessin and Bergell found the chestnuts to be one of nature’s gifts. Their fruit was a substitute for the expensive grain and insured survival throughout the Winter. The harvest of three trees was enough to feed one person.

That was just a small introduction to show how important chestnuts actually were for the Swiss living in the poorer areas. Today Locarno, Lugano and other Italian parts of Switzerland, known as the Kanton of Ticino, are well known as holiday places and it seems that the inhabitants have made a good living from the tourist attractions. In the last century things were different. The people were poor and were glad to be able to earn a living from the area where they lived. As you can see, the chestnuts shown in the illustration are perhaps different to the ones growing on the local horse chestnut trees you may have in your area. They are the edible chestnuts. I have spent Autumn holidays a few times in the Italian part of Switzerland when the kids were smaller, and on walks through the local woods we often gathered chestnuts that had fallen from the trees and roasted them in the evening.

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The Roasted Chesnut Man (known locally as the "Cheschtele Muni") is a well known site in most Swiss town when Autumn arrives. Our local chestnut man has his own small "house" in the middle of our market place and returns each year. As most of the chestnut sellers, he comes from the Italian speaking part of Switzerland and he and his family return each year to the same town. He has a second home in the town of Solothurn. The house where he sells the roasted chestnuts is looked after by our town, and it was given to him by a local organisation.

I have been living in Solothurn for nearly 40 years and I remember the parents of the "young" man that is now in charge. Of course, he is no longer so young, but neither am I. He is known as having the best chestnuts, and as a side line he also has peanuts.

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This is the back door to the hut where he has the large roasting ovens for the chestnuts. I remember as a kid also having roasted chestnuts in London, although imported, and also peanuts. It seemed to me that the taste of the peanuts today is not so good as when I was younger, but the peanuts that our chestnut man sells as the best I have eaten for years. When I am in town during the Winter months I usually buy a bag of peanuts from him - they just bring back memories.

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Our "Cheschtele Muni" is quite an important person in the town and has his own area behind the house for keeping all his provisions. A few years back I remember it was carnival time in town and as a "joke" one of the carnival organisations painted his house in a vivid pink colour overnight. Although it made the headlines in the local paper, the chestnut man and his family were not very happy about it, and a month later it was repainted in its normal red.

He is naturally very popular with the children and it can happen that you have to wait a few minutes until it is your turn in the queue buying your chestnuts.

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