“The Chestnut Trees at Osny”, Camille Pisarro, 1873
The Chestnut is one of the most important natural raw materials used for the extraction of tannin. This tree is widespread among the hilly areas of Europe (covering over two million hectares), mainly in Italy and France. It grows very fast and the trunk, after being cut, quickly develops new stems that give life to new plants.
Coppice (from latin caedere, “to cut”) is a forest that regenerates from shoots arising from dormant buds on vital stumps of trees that are periodically cut down, therefore undergoing a vegetative propagation. The stump is the remaining portion of the trunk with the roots still in the ground.
Broadleaved species, such as chestnut trees, have always been used in coppicing practices since they are the only kind of plants with buds which are able to produce shoots from the stump after cutting.
Centuries ago, chestnut woods were used to produce logs for the fire, poles for wineyards support, power lines and fences. They were coppiced once every 20-25 years. The wood was considered a resource of primary importance: it could be used directly or transformed into charcoal, as evidenced by the many charcoal kilns still present in the woods today.
Thanks to its high tannin content, chestnut wood is resistant to degradation even if continuously exposed to atmospheric agents. That is why it was used in the construction of hydraulic artifacts such as drains and wheels for mills, once widespread in rural and mountainous villages. The chestnut wood has a long life even if completely buried, an advantage that makes it the most suitable wood for hydraulic-forestry arrangements, naturalistic engineering works and mining supports.
Chestnut wood is widely used in the building industry, especially for the construction of trusses, roof beams and the production of objects for domestic use such as baskets, that, once were widely used in everyday life, and now have gained importance as trendy handicrafts. From the chestnut wood it is possible to obtain excellent staves for barrels and many other carpentry tools.
The chestnut tree is linked to the history of Man. It appeared on earth over 60 million years ago. Some botany studies have also identified an important concentration of chestnut pollens in the regions of central Italy already in the Bronze Age, around the year 1,000 B.C. The longevity of this species gives centenarian monumental trees, with trunks of really impressive diameter.
The Chestnut: Symbolism and Paganism
Precisely because of their majesty, these trees are historically linked to the symbolism and pagan worshipping of Earth and Nature. Many religions of Nature consider trees and plants as sacred and assign them a special magic value.
As a metaphor for life, the chestnut tree has a long tradition in the popular culture, that has been called the “bread tree” since ancient times.
The Greek historian Xenophon named it so in the IV century B.C. and so did Martial and Virgil a few centuries later. The term bread tree derived from the extraordinary ability of this plant to nourish entire populations that inhabited the Italian mountains, thanks to its precious fruit that is also called chestnut. Chestnut leaves were used for medication, its wood for heating as well as for the extraction of tannin, an essential ingredient for leather tanning.
Either boiled, roasted, dried or processed into flour, chestnuts are the main ingredient of many recipes of popular tradition, handed down from generation to generation and still playing a key role in many local festivals throughout the autumn months, especially in October.
A particular tradition widespread in some Italian territories was to eat chestnuts or roasted chestnuts on All Saints Day, leaving some on the table as food for the deceased loved ones.
Chestnuts were also a magical and auspicious resource within popular tradition. For this reason they were considered a precious gift when a child was baptised or as a gesture of hospitality towards the guests at a wedding, well before the diffusion of the traditional Italian “confetti” (sugared almonds).
Even the chestnut wood has been considered a precious material since the ancient times, endowed with a great symbolic value. According to many proverbs, in fact, it was a material widely used to make cradles. The baby would have grown strong and healthy in this way. Thanks to their power to ward off evil spirits, the branches of chestnut were donated as talismans to wayfarers.
If you want to discover magic places and get lost in the chestnuts woodland, you can go to Italy and spend a few days among the hilly areas between Liguria and Piedmont. A perfect opportunity for an intense hiking experience immersed into this amazing natural heritage.