Castagne to Go Chronicle of a Chestnut Lover

By Luciano Pradal

It all started in 2007 when I retired from my job as a stationary engineer and began a new career as a tourist guide for Italians visiting Ottawa. Oh no, wait! That’s another story… Let me start again.

In February 2008, I attended the BIT (Biennale Italiana del Turismo) in Milan, where I met Ernesto Milani, tourism blogger par excellence. We visited the fair grounds, touring its many stands and having a very nice time. Just outside the building, we came upon a street vendor who offered up some very fine roasted chestnuts. I enjoyed the experience very much and casually took some photos.

Back home in Ottawa, I met up with my friend, Nino Frigo and his son Gianni, who together own a welding shop in Little Italy. I showed them my photos of the chestnut roaster in Milan. Gianni was so taken by the photos that he asked me if he could keep one. Having no reason to refuse, I obliged.

A few months later, in the fall of that year, Gianni called me on the phone. “Luciano, can you smell the roasted chestnuts?” he said.

Of course, I had no idea what he was talking about.

“Come down,” he said, “and see and smell for yourself!”

I went to the shop and… there it was, a fornella, and on it some beautiful, freshly roasted chestnuts! I tasted one, and it was just delicious. Also present at this “tasting ceremony” was Joe Calabro, owner of Pasticceria Gelateria Italiana on Preston Street in Little Italy, not far from the welding shop. That’s when Gianni, Joe and I all had the same idea at the same time. We agreed then and there to go into the street chestnut roasting business!

Gianni built the cart, a marvellous piece of engineering, that made the fornella portable. I applied for and received a license from the City of Ottawa. We passed the health and safety inspection, and Angelo Filoso from the Italian Community Centre supported us with an insurance policy required by law. My friends, Joe, Pat, and Rocco Nicastro, owners of La Bottega – one of Ottawa’s finest Italian specialty food stores – allowed me to roast chestnuts just outside their shop. Everyone we enlisted was very supportive, encouraging and helpful.

Before our official launch, Joe called the Ottawa Citizen newspaper, and a reporter came to see us. He was very excited about the whole affair and wrote a very nice article. With some media support behind us, we were ready to embark on our chestnut roasting adventure!

The launch took place at the beginning of January – in the middle of winter, no less – just outside the Pasticceria. We received a lot of attention, as we moved the chestnut cart to different location throughout Little Italy. People were interested and excited by the thought of tasting freshly roasted chestnuts! For many, it was a totally new experience.

I made it a point to always be well dressed. I had a chance to socialize and to talk to many people about the little-known Canadian chestnut culture! Indeed, there were once four billion chestnut trees in Eastern North American. Unfortunately, in 1904 a blight destroyed them all. The American Chestnut Cooperators’ Foundation and the Canadian Chestnut Council (CCC), of which I am a recent member, are now working to bring them back. In 2010, the CCC planted 400 chestnut trees. In 2011 they planted 3000 more! All this is being done thanks to volunteers.

Some of the people who came to sample chestnuts were already acquainted with this wonderful nutrient, many of them of Asian, Arab, European, or African origins. The general Canadian population, however, seemed to know little, if anything, about chestnuts.

The media attention we received locally helped a great deal in spreading the word. The article in the Ottawa Citizen was followed by an item in Le Droit, Ottawa’s French-language newspaper. We were featured on CBC radio and on CTV television. This was followed by another article in the Ottawa Citizen by Bruce Deachman, for his series “One in a Million.” We even got a mention in the city’s tourist guide, as one of the city’s must-do things.

By the end of January we were nearly famous. I was invited to roast chestnuts for the residents of Villa Marconi, the Italian Senior Citizens Home. I wondered what memories the scent and taste of roasted chestnuts brought back for them! For my part, I had an unforgettable experience!

In fact, every day that I was out there offering up roasted chestnuts was wonderful. I would get to La Bottega at around 9 a.m. Giovanni would make me an espresso that only he can make! One is all you need to be at your best the entire day! My day began with preparing the wood charcoal. It takes a good while for the fire to get going and make the fornella hot enough for roasting.

Here comes a passer-by. He stops: “How long before they are ready?”

“Come back in half an hour,” I say.

“See you then!”

A mother and child come towards me. I take a warm chestnut and wrap it in a paper towel. I put it in the child’s hands and her face lights up. Children always look at me in wonder when I put a warm chestnut in there hands. Imagine their reaction after they taste it!
Though they see the sign on the front of the cart, the uninitiated curiously ask, “Roasted chestnuts?”

I am quick to respond, “Yes! Would you like to try one? Free sample!” While they savour the chestnuts, I explain what a wonderful food they are. Chestnuts help in the formation of red blood cells, they lower bad cholesterol, and increase good cholesterol. They are also a good source of dietary fibre, they are relatively low in calories, and are exceptionally rich in Vitamin C.

In my free sample offer, I like to ask the ladies to make a wish. It’s an old Italian superstition to make a wish the first time you eat something new. Many women like to play along; they close their eyes and make a wish. One day a young lady came back to tell me that her wish had come true, she was pregnant. I could not believe it! The magical power of chestnuts!

Here comes another lady. “Roasted chestnuts?” she asks.

“Yes, madam.”

She samples one and walks away. She returns later with her father, a man from Friuli in a wheel chair, who was very eager to buy some freshly roasted chestnuts. This is the kind of interaction that makes me enjoy roasting chestnuts even more.

Being stationed in front of La Bottega has its perks. The Nicastro family as well as all the employees are very supportive, regularly asking if I want a cappuccino, a hot soup or one of their fabulous panini. I usually decline because I preferred munching on the irresistible chestnuts and, as I discovered, chestnuts are also “anti-fatigue.”

As businessmen and associates, Gianni, Joe and I took great care to record all the data pertaining to our venture. At first it seemed as if our niche business would be a success. But, alas, it turns out that January is a very slow month for chestnuts sales, indeed for any sales at all! Maybe it was the wrong time of the year to start such a business, after all. We were very disappointed to have to stop operations, especially for the regular customers, even if there were not that many.

Still, what a fabulous experience I had selling roasted chestnuts in the winter cold, and to be able to talk about it. Deep down, though, I remain convinced that a market for roasted chestnuts in winter is out there. It just needs to be nurtured – just like what all those volunteers are doing to bring back the chestnut tree to North America. Chestnuts – the bread of the poor, the bread from heaven. Try a roasted chestnut with a little cheese. Roll it in your mouth and savour it. Then, wash it down with a sip of red wine. Few things even come close to being so delicious.

Luciano Pradal is a retired stationary engineer living in Ottawa. Roasting chestnuts has become his passion.