A Visit to the Val Bregaglia.
The Valley of the Impressive Chestnut Selves
It's not Italy that has the largest sweet-chestnut forest in Europe, but the southern Grisons valley of Val Bregaglia in Switzerland. The Selven (forests) with their dense stands of chestnut trees resemble a park more than a forest. The locals cultivate and harvest their fruits. Tourists are welcome, but there is a saying here – as in the vineyards: «stealing» is frowned upon! However, for helping with «chestnut bashing» – when the spiky shell is detached from the fruit – all hands are welcome.
Carrying-baskets of this type, made of wickerwork, are somewhat out of fashion. In the Val Bregaglia they are called «Gerli». Since the advent of cars and tractors, they have almost completely disappeared. Once they served to transport hay, apples, nuts and sometimes a piglet. But in the chestnut groves, the people still fill them with chestnuts today and bring them to the drying cottage – the «Cascine» – where the fruit are left for a few weeks to dry. In October, young and old get together at the Chestnut Festival.
Autumn. The leaves are falling, and the chestnuts also fall. Now there is much to do in the Selva (the forest) of Castasegna, the lowest village in the Val Bregaglia. Here is the «Brentan», the largest chestnut forest in Europe. It is not surprising that the chestnut is represented both in place names and in the coat of arms of the village. The Selva's productivity is managed in three ways: in the spring the grass is mowed for hay; in the summer the cattle are grazed there; and in autumn it's chestnut harvest time.
There they lie in the «Gerla», the chestnuts, shiny and appetising. They get you dreaming of the tasty tempting Vermicelli that will be served with them. But around here the marroni were once the bread of the poor people. This remained so until the 18th century. Then, the chestnut was supplanted by the triumph of potato and corn. Only in recent years did the people in Val Bregaglia remember that precious treasure, the chestnut, and begin to cultivate it again.