On a recent trip to Italy I dropped into a temporary shack set up just like a Christmas tree lot but this one featured all things "chestnut." You could sit down to eat some freshly roasted chestnuts and drink a glass of wine before moving on for your evening. There was also a variety of prepared chestnut products as well as raw chestnuts you could purchase. The place was quite packed and the warmth from the roaster was comforting in contrast to the cold wind blowing outside.
At this time of year across Northern Italy you'll see roasted chestnut stands on street corners of cities large and small. These businesses are the Italian version of pumpkin patches and Christmas tree lots, completely seasonal and a reminder of more modest times. The vendors take up their position on corners and piazzas, roast chestnuts over an open fire and sell them for a few bucks in paper cones. You'll see the skins strewn across cobblestone streets as people munch while strolling. Chestnuts are omnipresent this time of year in Northern Italy on menus, in markets and in the orchards that carpet Piedmont.
This encounter got me thinking about why we don't see chestnuts as publicly available in the Bay Area. I had a minor eureka moment and remembered that years ago the Chronicle had mentioned that you could collect chestnuts somewhere in San Mateo County. Upon my return I took a quick trip down to Skyline Chestnuts and did some gathering. Apparently, the chestnut season is fairly brief. It started mid-October and ends this weekend before Thanksgiving so if you are interested in DIY chestnut collection don't delay!
The drive down is a great experience unto itself. In less than an hour from San Francisco you enter into a completely rural landscape. Should you take the quick route down 280 you turn west on Sand Hill Road and climb through the economic strata: Massive houses, equestrians hugging the road and packs of people on really nice bikes. Then you reach the redwoods and classic coastal California. Hairpin turns pull you onto ridges that yield pristine views of the entire bay one minute, then rolling hills descending into the Pacific the next. Along the way you can stop to pick up a picnic or even a glass of wine because Thomas Fogerty winery lies directly in your path.