Heading north along the Via Cassia during the fall season, reaching the Vico Lake and Cimini Hills roughly 30 miles from Rome, chestnuts abundantly fall into the road like raindrops. The abundant forest of chestnut and hazelnut trees surrounding the lake that formed from a volcanic crater, is a protected natural reserve encompassing more than 7000 acres. Throughout the month of October the region hosts several festivals in the hilltop towns celebrating the autumn harvest and the delicious variety of fall fruits from the volcanic soil that combine history, folklore , and of course, the distinguished chestnut.
Among the most famous “sagre delle castagne” or chestnut festivals ensues in the town of Soriano nel Cimino. Over the first 3 weekends in October one can taste roasted chestnuts in the streets, savoring a product that has been native to the region since ancient times. The chestnut festival is set in a city that becomes a theatrical stage of history throughout the month. Performed throughout the squares and streets is a grand Medieval and Renaissance parade flaunting hundreds of historic gowns and swordsmen in addition to a dramatic archery contest.
Soriano native Paola Kovnick has been a part of the festival since she was practically a baby. Her father was one of the founders of the festival 47 years ago and she has since then been helping to iron flags, sew costumes and serve wine. Her favorite part of the festival is the rhythm of the music, the same she used to play when she was a young drummer girl in the parade. She now co-owns with her husband Michael a culinary and travel company called Culture Discovery that leads cooking classes and excursions in the area. Some items on the menu for visitors in October include chestnut and ceci bean soup, and veal chestnut stew. One of her most prolonged culinary endeavors of the season is making the famous “monte bianco” dessert. The recipe dates back to the 15th Century and is reported to have been served in the home of the illustrious and notorious Borgia Papal family who enjoyed summer residences in the area. The dessert is made from pureed sweet chestnuts that Paola describes are mixed with brandy and sugar and sieved forming a mountain shape, thus providing its name after the famous snow capped mountain.
While Paola is a model for sustaining the local traditions of her hometown in Soriano nel Cimino, Michael notes about the festival that while the festival is named after the chestnuts, it is in fact a culture and harvest festival celebrating the town’s history, location, and vast culinary traditions.
The town is situated on the south-east slope of the Monte Cimino, the highest peak of the Cimini Hills reaching an altitude of about 1053 meters. Atop the hill is an imposing view of the Orsini Castle built in the 13th Century as the summer residence of Pope Nicholas III. A tasting of local products such as hazelnut and chestnut biscotti and a special type of “gnocchi col ferro” that was traditionally made forming shapes and incisions using pieces from old-fashioned umbrellas, has been hosted inside the castle in previous years of the festival.
Several other towns throughout Lazio around the Cimini Hills celebrate the abundance of chestnuts with festivals, fairs and markets such as Canepina, Caprarola, Carbognano, and Vallerano, all located in the Viterbo province. According to Datatravel S.r.l. that specializes in the promotion of Made in Italy products, fifty to sixty thousand quintals of chestnuts are produced in the area, testifying to the prestige of the area’s chestnut production and fertile volcanic soil. The travel and editorial company also cites the differences among chestnuts from the Cimino area around Vico lake and those from the Tolfa area located between Rome and Civitavecchia. The Tolfa chestnuts are called “marrone” and are larger and heavier.
Many of the chestnut festivals in Lazio occur in traditional wineries, highlighting the pairing of chestnuts and grapes. Several cities closer to Rome such as Marino, Genezzano, and Frosinone also host grape festivals throughout October. The town of Piglio in the province of Frosinone celebrates specifically the Cesanese grape with a folklore festival enhanced by a tasting of the region’s famous Cesanese wine. And for the heartier pallets not forgotten are the Sagra della Porchetta in Poggio Bustone in the Rieti province famous for boneless pork roast held on October 7th, and the Sagra della Salsiccia translated as (hold back the laughter) “sausage festival” in the town of Morlupo in the Rome province planned for the last weekend in October.
While Italy is year-round renowned for its rich and diverse landscape, there is no better time and place to enjoy the country’ spirit and gastronomy than October in Lazio.