Zocca is a small town in the province of Modena, located about 45 km southwest of Bologna and about 35 km south of Modena, in the Apennines of Emilia-Romagna. Its municipality contains the frazioni (subdivisions – mainly villages and hamlets) of Ciano, Missano, Montalbano, Montecorone, Montetortore, Montombraro and Rosola.
A first settlement was apparently founded here in the Middle Ages as seat of an important exchange market. The traders would meet at the centre of the territory, where – legend has it – stood the trunk of a cut tree, around which the gathering took place. The stump of a dead tree is still known in the local dialect as “la zoca” – hence the name of the place.
Today, Zocca is a small tourist destination, mostly of local interest, situated at the boundary between the provinces of Modena and Bologna, and the territory of its municipality is endowed with several places of natural beauty, in the typical setting of the medium Northern Apennines, mostly covered in chestnut groves, some of which are of historical origin.
In fact, in this respect it is worth pointing out the fact that the central section of the Northern Apennines is sometimes also referred to as the “chestnut civilization belt” (“fascia della civiltà del castagno” in Italian), so important this crop was for the sustenance of the local population over the centuries, in an area where wheat no longer grows successfully (and therefore chestnut becomes the substitute staple).
The Chestnut Tree
The chestnut, Castanea sativa, is a broadleaved tree belonging to the family of the Fagacee (Beech family). In Italy it prefers the altitude band that goes on average from 300 to 800 metres above sea level: the so-called area of the castanetum. The ‘economy of chestnut’ is, by certain scholars, also associated to the existence of a veritable chestnut civilization that permeated, in the past, the traditional economy of many Italian regions, especially along the spine of the Apennines and of the two major islands – not just in agricultural and forestry activities, but also as a source of food, as well as a presence shaping the environment, the landscape, the architectural structure of many communities through the building industry, artisan activities (such as furniture-making) and even literature, poetry, painting, art in general, seeping deeply into the very ‘cultural fabric’ of the population.
Unlike other trees belonging to the Fagacee – such as Oaks – chestnuts produce fruits mainly destined to human consumption (known as sweet chestnuts). But from chestnuts many other produce are obtained too: working timber used for sturdy furniture-making; beams for the building industry; poles used for fencing or as ‘tutor’ for plants in gardening and agriculture; tannins for working leather; vegetal charcoal and burning timber for cooking and heating purposes.
Another use of chestnut is in traditional medicine; even bee-keeping takes advantage of the presence of chestnut groves for the production of a rich, dark-coloured honey.
Chestnuts are being harvested in autumn, dried in a building known as ‘metato’ in Italian (of which many examples can be seen in the countryside around Zocca) and then ground in grinding mills in order to obtain a sweet flour, with which several cakes can be fashioned. Dried chestnuts can also be kept entire, and then they can be boiled or roasted, thus obtaining the famous ‘caldarroste’.
The History of Chestnut
The genus Castanea originated in China; still in remote epochs it migrated towards North America and the Middle East, reaching the Caucasus mountains and present-day Turkey. From these areas – as well as from Japan – came the species and varieties present today in Italy.
It would seem that during the Cenozoic era, chestnut was a lot more widespread in Europe, and it is only after the last glaciation (Würm) that its distibution shrank, while at the same time the species started drifting to the south, becoming naturalized in the Mediterranean basin.
In fact, small indigenous nuclei of Castanea sativa have been individuated in Italy too, mostly in the Veneto and Southern Italy. However, it is during the Middle Ages that the extension of this tree grew – at first quite considerably – mostly in response to the patterns of increase/decrease in population.
The cultivation of chestnuts in order to obtain edible fruits has often provided, in the past, the only source of nourishment largely available to the inhabitants of the lower and medium Italian mountain, where chestnuts were also referred to as the “bread of the poor”. This is why, in various communities across the country, the cultivation of this precious plant was often strictly regulated.
After the end of the Middle Ages, a significant increase in population gave a further boost to the production of chestnuts – a trend that was interrupted only at the beginning of the 20th Century, with the onset of such phenomena as emigration and abandonment of the mountainous territories.
Today, the landscape connected to the presence of chestnut trees often looks degraded: during the last century fruit production fell considerably, and as a consequence trees stopped being looked after; the chestnut groves – normally very orderly-looking, when properly tended – became wilder and wilder. Many historic specimens were felled, then diseases also spread; as a result, many ancient groves were converted into coppice of much lesser value.
Very often, because of the intense exploitation, the coppice were later taken over by the assault of Locust tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), an invasive species which in Italy is particularly aggressive.
The final blow to the “chestnut economy” came with the progressive substitution of chestnut charcoal or firewood with other sources of fuel. Charcoal production sites are still visible to this day throughout the Apennines, and many represent, by now, an archaeological presence within the cultural landscape, while chestnut working timber is mostly imported.
In the past, chestnuts represented a great resource for the mountain population: whether it was coppicing, the tending of groves for fruit production or timber production, in any case the existence of many workers and their families depended on this tree: in fact, the very life of the people – from early childhood right to the moment of death – unfolded in close contact with this plant. By living consistently in contact with chestnut and its produce, the material culture of entire communities was slowly shaped by the various uses of this plant.
But apart from the productive aspects, the abandonment of chestnut groves and the end of the “chestnut civilization” has created enormous environmental problems too: where the plants formerly used for fruit production have become wild – and coppicing continued unabashed – the soil has become deprived of its nutrients; it may therefore become prone to erosion, and subsequently be invaded by Robinia pseudoacacia, as well as being attacked by pests and diseases. This may well sound like the final act of the once glorious “chestnut economy” in Italy – but in fact it is not all doom and gloom as it would seem, as witnessed by the section below.
The “Chestnut Economy”
Zocca belonged in full to the “chestnut civilization belt”, and the evidence of this is well documented in the area by important cultural institutions and events. In fact, during the autumn season Zocca really becomes the “Queen of Chestnuts” of Emilia-Romagna, thanks to this typical local production, which has its maximum expression in the so-called Marrone di Zocca – a chestnut variety with particularly plump and flavoursome fruits, which are the occasion for a local fete that calls people from many miles around, as well as from Modena and Bologna themselves.
As we said, the “chestnut civilization” – sometimes also referred to as “chestnut economy” – is characterized by the large prevalence, in an area, of the cultivation of chestnut trees (which go on to form vast expanses of open chestnut groves), and the transformation of their products as the main resource of a given territory, accompanied by a high consumption of sweet chestnuts and their derivates as a staple for human nourishment.
The Chestnut Museum
The Centre of documentation hosting the Chestnut Museum (Museo del Castagno) was created in 2000 by the old Ospitale di San Giacomo, a building mentioned for the first time in a document dated 1186: certainly this is not a place chosen by chance, as the Monte di San Giacomo and its ‘ospitale’ (hostel) have made the history of these lands; still today, the chestnut grove to be found here is one of the most ancient and beautiful in Zocca. Many nice walks can also be had in the area, with the Museum as starting point (see below).
The Ospitale, which at the ground floor hosts the museum, has ancient origins. The structure was once maintained by monks that would also offer hospitality to the
pilgrims who once crossed these lands in order to reach the Holy City, in
a period which was certainly not without dangers and sacrifices for travelers.
The transformations made to the building in the course of the centuries have been many, and still today a trained eye will notice architectural characteristics which are typical of the various periods, like the 18th Century portico that protects the entrance to the museum.
museum itself, spread over three rooms, shows the history of chestnut civilization
through the objects that are connected to it; in the two side rooms are described the instruments for the care of chestnut groves and how to work the products, while in the central room a series of boards
illustrate the character of this tree; its distribution nationwide, in
Europe and in the world; its pests and diseases, and the grafting
techniques. A corner of the room is used to reconstruct the habitat of chestnut trees.
Among the instruments gathered in the museum there are pieces of rare beauty and high value, such as the old saws – as precious now as they were once – for the working of trunks and the production of high-quality furniture, beams and poles for the building industry. A small space is also dedicated to chestnut use during WW2, with findings from the time and the inherent documentation.
The “Open Museum”
A visit to the museum is not exhausted just within the rooms, but it leaves the hospital building to lead into a pleasant flat path that enters the heart of the chestnut grove on Monte San Giacomo; here the visitor can see and touch directly for themselves what was discovered theoretically in the museum thanks to the photographic exhibition – obviously bearing in mind the time of the year and the weather conditions.
The external route is equipped with information panels that illustrate – along thirteen stops – the various phases involved in the cultivation of chestnut trees, while showcasing the activities to be carried out for the correct maintenance of chestnut groves, and describing the various phases of life of a productive orchard.
The route of “open museum” ends inside a very peculiar small basin – quite rare for this latitude – where we find a birch grove: a tree that is more typical of cold climates, and which managed to remain here since the glacial period. The birch grove is crossed by a circular trail, also rich in information boards. This is a suitable ending to the walk, as here can in fact be admired a good number of tree, shrub and grass species, amongst which are some particular and rare plants, more typical of this climatic band.
Local Food and Other Produce
As well as for chestnuts, Zocca is also well-known for its food tradition. The famous tigella (known as crescentina in other parts of the Northern Apennines – more especially so in the Bologna Apennines) is a small, rounded bread originally baked in the fireplace wrapped in a chestnut leaf, and which can be tasted in most of the local bars and restaurants. The tigella takes its name from the terracotta artifact which is heated amongst the ashes, where this small, flat round bread is baked in piles of 1 tigella, 1 leaf, 1 tigella, 1 leaf – and so forth. The town is also the headquarters of the “Compagnia della Cunza”, an association for the culture and conservation of the tradition of the typical Borlengo, perhaps the most well-known typical local dish (explained below), with the annexed Museo del Borlengo.
The borlengo is a sort of very thin and crusty crepe, prepared from a liquid dough – extremely simple to prepare (it is a typical “poor people’s food”) – made of flour, water (or milk) and salt: this dough is known as colla (glue). The traditional filling, called cunza (hence the name of the company described above), consists of a mixture of lard, garlic and rosemary, plus a dusting of Parmesan cheese at the end. The borlengo is usually served hot or very warm, and folded in four parts. Many towns and villages in the area of production (amongst which is Zocca) claim paternity of this food, whose origin is decidedly ancient: the first known documents are dated 1266, but there are also those who date the birth of the borlengo as far back as Neolithic times.
The borlengo is very typical of the culture and tradition of the valle del Panaro, where Zocca is located; it dates to ancient times, and it is part of the vast array of breads known since Pre-historic times. It is therefore easy to associate it to those foods originally linked with the sun as a source of life – clearly of Pagan origin – together with the feasts that were held for the inauguration of a new seasonal cycle. The oral tradition passes it on as a food for the carnival, thus prepared mainly in the period that goes from the Epiphany to Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent). The term borlengo probably derives precisely from the name with which carnival was called in Medieval times. Being considered a “poor man's food”, it is little mentioned in literature; its preparation is characterized by two main factors: the simple ingredients and the complexity of execution.
The Museum-laboratory of the Borlengo is also located inside the ancient Ospitale di San Giacomo. Situated right in front of the Chestnut Museum (see above), it is constituted of two rooms. The first room is dedicated to the permanent exhibition, and it hosts ancient pans for the preparation of borlenghi as well as other objects related to local culture and the farmers’ tradition, accompanied by numerous boards that explain what the borlengo – a tasty dish so typical of the area around Zocca – is. In the second room a laboratory has been set up as a facility where to learn how to prepare the borlengo, and where small courses and workshops open to the public are held throughout the year.
In Zocca a patois is being spoken, which mixes elements of the dialect of Modena with influences from the nearby province of Bologna. From all this, it will be evident that the cultural life of the town is quite active despite its small size: so much so that even a “zocchese/Italian” dictionary has been compiled!