A Small Greek Village in a Big Chestnut Forest

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Autumn had really settled in. Tourists had long ago bidden farewell to the magic Greek summer and the village square seemed deserted. In the centre of it there is a traditional cafe, where men go through their usual afternoon ritual of drinking coffee and playing cards and the women are going through their household chores and taking care of their gardens.

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Food self-sufficiency is vital for provincial Greece. As soon as night falls, the only light that breaks this endless dark is that of the stars in the sky, a majestic view that is almost impossible to see in the metropolitan cities of the West. This fact is very revealing about life in one of the most beautiful Greek mountain villages. Kastanitsa, built at an altitude of 850 metres, is a traditional village of unique architectural beauty, where many centuries-old stone houses are still standing, painted in the distinctive white of whitewash.

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Its name comes from the Greek word for chestnuts, and chestnuts are the most important local produce and the basic source of income for its inhabitants. It is surrounded by a huge chestnut forest, covering an area of 4.5 km2 and in the past the yearly harvest exceeded 500 tons. Gradually the area declined since there was a tendency of younger people to migrate towards urban centres. Now there are 20 permanent residents in the village and the harvest does not exceed 60-70 tons each year. Autumn is the harvesting period for chestnuts. Villagers go their plots early in the morning and gather chestnuts, then they make a selection, throwing out those that are not in good condition, put them in refrigerators so that they last and from there they distribute them to Greece, but also abroad.

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Mr. Nikos is 85 years old and is one of the oldest chestnut producers. He has spent his entire life in the fields. “Chestnuts saved us from hunger. During the war we made bread and other dishes with chestnuts. When I was young I used to climb up the chestnut trees and shook them so that chestnuts fell faster to the ground. Three times I fell from the trees. Now that I’ve grown old I wait for them to fall by themselves. Ineverthoughtaboutleaving. This is my life, inside the forest”, he says. As a consequence of the economic crisis and the rise in unemployment, during the last years there have been young people that have returned to Kastanista in order to work in agricultural production and the processing of produce and rebuild their lives closer to their roots.

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Chestnuts offer a unique opportunity for the productive reconstruction of the area. This nut does not only have great nutritional value but the specific qualities of the territory and of the climate make it particularly tasteful. It is a product with a growing demand in international markets because it can be used in both cooking and pastry making, creating impressive taste combinations that combine experimentation and tradition into a harmonious puzzle of tastes. The women of the village know many such secrets, make exceptional dishes and share these with tourists and travelers that arrive to this isolated but beautiful place.

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Veal onion stew with chestnuts.

Ingredients:

  • 1 kg Veal brisket, cut in servings
  • 1 onion cut in slices
  • 1 coffee mug olive oil
  • 1/2 kg small onions for onion stew
  • 1 large glass red whine
  • 1 glass tomato juice
  • 3 laurel leaves and 1 cinnamon stick
  • 2-3 dried fruits of allspice
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 kg of chestnuts, boiled or roasted and peeled off.

How to prepare it:

The night before we put in a large bowl the pieces of meat and we add the wine, the laurel leave, the allspice, the onion that we have cut in pieces and cover them with plastic foil and then we put this in the refrigerator to marinate. The next day we dry the meat and we saute it in the pot with olive oil, we then pour the marinade that we have kept aside and we add tomato juice. We poor in warm water and we let it simmer for about an hour. After the meat has softened we add the small onions, which have been peeled and slightly boiled, and we continue simmering, until the sauce thickens. In the end we add the chestnuts, we let it simmer a little more and we take it off the heat. We serve with rice pilaf or french fries.

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Photos by Alexandros Katsis 

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