Castagno d’Andrea and marroni chestnuts

One rainy day in early November, we park the car beneath the church of Castagno d’Andrea. Other buildings are few: there’s a workshop, a social club, and a big damp silence. We are in the heart of the Casentino forest, between Falterona and Monte Falco, in the upper reaches of Tuscany.

Castagno was the birthplace of the celebrated Renaissance painter Andrea del Castagno, and one of the most beloved stomping grounds of the twentieth-century poet Dino Campana. But the real jewels in its crown are its extraordinary chestnut woods, which since time immemorial have dropped their marroni chestnuts every autumn.

It’s the time of the year when the wood – thick, dense and rough – is at its most imposing and mysterious. We are at Castagno in order to follow the faint footpaths among the trees, disappearing between the flint boulders and moss. It’s evening and already dark when, some of us armed with raincoats and some with the more cumbersome umbrellas (which take something away from the experience) we start treading our merry dance between the rounded stones, picking our feet up from the dry leaves. Closed chestnut burrs litter the ground; earthworms and happy frogs rear their heads, and our boots crack and shatter the wildtrack of natural sounds, which plays over the consistent rhythm of the November rain. Our torches get only so far into the nooks and crannies, throwing up almost spectral visions which threaten to distract us from the task in hand. Namely, not slipping. Not tripping. Not twisting an ankle. Not losing the group. Taking care of ourselves. We almost telepath these concerns to each other, yet we drink in the smell of the underbrush, the damp, the moss, the chestnuts, the lined leaves on the ground. It’s a walk that completely dispels a week of work worries, of deadlines to meet, of projects to complete. At least here, now, we are not cogs in a machine; we are souls that move, breathe and live.

After a not inconsiderable climb of some steep, knotty pathways, the drizzle starts to mix with a few beads of sweat on the forehead and neck. We’re in November and 800 metres above sea level, but the cold has yet to come. In the distance, we can discern a strange, dark, rectangular outline, with a few squares of yellow light. We draw near, and the shape turns out to be stone, and that yellow light is shining through windows. It’s a house. The door is ajar, and the shaft of light almost dazzles us. Ruddy cheeks, fogged-up glasses, and a broad smile welcome us in.

So we don’t bring the mud and the wet inside, we virtually derobe at the door, sheltered by an awning that covers spades, baskets, harrows, some ripening fruit. Off with the boots, off with the sodden raincoats. We step inside.

The house is exactly the sort of house you would expect to find at the end of a hike through the murky, dank, silent woods. An enormous Victorian fireplace dominates the main room; it’s so big that you could almost live in it, and in fact two of the party immediately set up home beneath the surrounds. The others, myself included, sit round a huge wooden table. Beppe’s family lives off the land – grain, chestnuts, vegetables – but also produce a but of charcuterie and cheese. Beppe pours us a drop of sweet wine and wastes no time in putting some marroni chestnuts on the fire, on a holed pan of the kind that my grandparents used to have. The smell wafts through the air; the mouth is caressed by the honey-sweet fluid. Every so often, the chestnuts are flipped by a flick of the wrist on the chunky panhandle. The aroma of burnt chestnuts reaches every corner of the room. Table-talk abounds, deep words shared between strangers, a whirligig of expostulations and confessions. Fear. Death. Choices. The chestnuts sit in the middle of the table, cupped by some kitchen roll to coax the damp out of them (in Tuscany, they call this making the chestnuts “pisciare” (piss), but it’s not a pleasant expression). Hands tangle with hands to grab the chestnuts and partake in the ritual of shelling them. Words get chewed up with the sweet nutty flesh. “They’re especially good this year,” Beppe says. “They taste of the sun.”

By now it’s pitch black. We reluctantly strike back out into the wood, eventually reaching our cars by Castagno’s church. “In Campana’s time, the village consisted of no more than the church and a cluster of houses. Now the houses are many, but mostly empty.” The stark words of our group leader Emiliano, environmental tour guide, photographer and a writer of great style and elegance. Our thanks go to him for making us feel, for a few short hours, part of a magical oneness.