Impressions: Chestnuts and Italian Festivals

FLORENCE, Italy — The smell of chestnuts is unique. It floats and twirls, twisting and weaving through the air and finally curling its way into your ...

Oct 25, 2014

FLORENCE, Italy — The smell of chestnuts is unique. It floats and twirls, twisting and weaving through the air and finally curling its way into your nose. It is overwhelming in a sense and, like pine trees or mistletoe, the smell is inseparable from its festive aura. I have breathed it in many times on brisk walks through Florence, and I have dreamed of it many more times, but never in my life have I known it so well as I did upon returning from La Sagra delle Castagne, The Chestnut Festival, in the Tuscan town of Marradi.
Sagreare traditional festivals typically held in the small hill towns of Italy with the intent of reinventing the village-like markets of old. They are generally dedicated to a certain food or ingredient, commemorating everything from truffles and chocolates to frogs. La Sagra delle Castagne is a festival that has been held in Marradi for just under fifty years, each year only setting the bar higher for the next. It celebrates the Mugello chestnuts that are so carefully protected by the Indicazione Geografica Protetta, a European Community recognition that guarantees the geographic origins and qualities of particular products.Boasting an open-air, self-service restaurant that was custom designed for the festival with entertainment and folklore by alternating musicians, the festival was an impressive affair even for the jaded traveler.
Marradi itself, nestled tightly in between flocks of emerald, tree-clad mountains, is the setting of fairytales. From cozy streets that can barely fit an arm-span to the rickety wooden bridge that bravely cross its trickling stream, Marradi begs the question, "Where are the fairies?"
My arrival, however, was an uneven one. The lower half of my body was on the verge of death after a two-hour bus ride, having had a desperate need to use the restroom. I painfully learned my lesson: never assume there is a restroom on the bus. That said, as soon as I had ran off the bus, frantically panting at everyone in my path that it was an emergency and begging them to lead me to a restroom, half of my body was silenced and every space available was consumed by the desire to see, smell and taste everything I touched.
Stands lined the streets, proudly crouched in front of beautiful rustic buildings and houses as if to claim the quaint town itself — they succeeded. From little boys grinning as wide as their mouth would go, to the crankiest Italian grandmother’s eyes crinkling with kindness, it was as if the whole town had joined together for this day to put on its Sunday best and had invited everyone to share mamma's cooking, sneaking candy-red apples and swirled potato sticks under the table to us hungry tourists. Indeed, the free treats proliferated in the forms of olive-oil soaked bread, hunks of cheese, crumbs of toast with tart berry jam and bursting pomegranate seeds. Still, the real treasures were everything chestnut-related. Roasted chestnuts, chestnut cake, chestnut strudel, chestnut cream, chestnut honey and even chestnut pasta. Among all of the distractions and giveaways, everything lead to that same, overpowering warmth that Nat King Cole sings of on Christmas eve. I could almost hear good old Nat cooing softly of the "chestnuts roasting on an open fire."
Even then, his mellifluous voice cannot articulate the paradise I found in Marradi today. I ride back to Florence with a sense of wistfulness, but also a shining feeling of hope. Beyond all of the ruckus, anxiety and insecurity that college evokes at some point or another, there is an untouchable peace in being impressionable. Sometimes, all you need is a day and the direction of a familiar smell. And, of course, an empty bladder is always welcome, too.
Olivia Jones is a contributing writer. Email her at 
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