Growing up I always remember my dad roasting chestnuts in the fall. I think I even remember that we had a chestnut tree, though it’s far too early in the morning to call up my parents in Pennsylvania and ask to be sure. I never ate chestnuts though; I thought they were weird. After all, they came out of a burr so prickly on the outside that it was hard to get to. It wasn’t until I was an adult and my dad asked if I wanted to share a bag from a roasted chestnut vendor on the streets of NYC that I appreciated the slightly sweet taste of the meaty nut. And then on a fateful trip to Venice to pick up my lost luggage just a few months after we moved to Italy, Tim and I took a little detour to Jesolo. It’s a beach town, but in winter the streets come alive with a sand nativity and vendors pedaling roasted chestnuts and mulled wine. We’ve been eating roasted chestnuts from street vendors all over Europe ever since! So naturally, when we heard there was a whole festival dedicated to the odd nut, we just had to go check out the Combai Chestnut Festival.
Not very long ago, the chestnut was considered a gift from nature amongst these mountain communities and the soil of Combai was particularly suited for the cultivation. Chestnuts are documented to have been grown around Combai since Medieval Times and, known as marroni di Comabi, are of the most famous in all of Italy.
Note: The chestnut is called castagna in Italian, pronouced KA-stan-yah. Listen to a pronunciation:
Comabi is a tiny mountain community in the Treviso Alps. Chestnut trees dot the terraced vineyards that climb the slopes of the Treviso hills along the Strada del Prosecco (Prosecco Road). The festival itself, Festa dei Marroni di Combai, is tiny but the beautiful drive along the winding road alone is worth the trip. With the gorgeous fall landscapes and the opportunity to taste chestnuts in a variety of food specialties, its easy to see why the annual Combai Chestnut Festival is visited by thousands every year.
Local vendors set up booths with their handicrafts throughout the narrow, cobbled streets of the village selling everything from handmade jewelry to hand-painted terracotta roof tiles. There were local cheese and salami vendors ready to offer us samples of delicious and crumbly Stravecchio (a favorite, but somewhat hard to find cheese that is a cousin of Parmesan), pecorino with pepperoncini, and of course, a cheese with roasted chestnuts. A convert of the local Italian honey, I couldn’t pass up buying a jar of chestnut honey.
Arms laden with cheese and honey to bring home, we joined the line (honestly, one of the only times I’ve seen Italian patiently queue for anything!) to sample local specialties made with the famous Combai chestnuts. Cakes, gelato, pasta, and even beer featured on the menu. Starting with dessert first, we sampled the chestnut gelato, made pureed chestnuts and cream with chopped up roasted chestnuts. I was a bit skeptical…until the first bit. Sweet chestnut heaven, it was delicious!
Comabi chestnuts are roasted in a special pan called a rostidora over an open fire. These had to be the messiest, but tastiest chestnuts we’ve ever had. We both laughed as our fingers got blacker and blacker as we peeled the shells from the meaty flesh. We may have even had some roasted chestnut soot mustaches…but if there’s no photo evidence, it didn’t happen! We washed down the sweet roasted nuts with verdiso novella, a white wine made from verdiso grapes usually used a blending grape in Prosecco. What a delicious way to spend an afternoon!
Know Before You Go
- The 2013 Combai Chestnut Festival run Tuesday – Sunday for 3 weeks from October 4 – November 3. Check the full program here.
- A number of restaurants in the area are offering a chestnut themed menu throughout the month of October. Find the full listing on the program.
- Bring euro as the festival is cash only. There are no banks or ATMs in the village of Combai. The nearest ATM is in the village of Miane, about 10 minutes drive.
- Combai can only be reached by car and is about 45 kilometers from Trevio. There is free parking below the village.
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