In autumn the chestnut vendor with his Foefoe and freshly picked sweet chestnuts comes down from the mountains, he exhibits his merchandise in a crowded place in town and will be a leading view in the street scenes of many Greek cities until the end of winter. The Pierians, the inhabitants of the Greek-Macedonian district of Pieria, like to buy a bag of roasted chestnuts.
The most ancient land of Anatolia, Paflagonia, is according to the ancient Greek poet Ermippos the land of origin of the sweet chestnut. Not that no sweet chestnut trees existed and no chestnuts were eaten, because that was done already in the Bronze Age in Asia. No, Paflagonia was the cradle for the distribution of the chestnut over the rest of Asia Minor (modern western Turkey) and Greece. And who kept themselves busy with this? You guessed it, the Greeks!
During the cold months in Greece, in areas with many chestnut trees, chestnut festivals are organized where people can eat roasted or boiled chestnuts accompanied by traditional music and tsipoero like in the mountain village of Paleos Pandeleimonas at a height of around 700 meters in the Mountain Olympus. It’s very hard not to stop all the time along the way that winds up to the village, there is so much to admire: the snowy peaks of Mount Olympus, the vast plain of Pieria, the coastline of the Aegean Sea and a beautiful nature. Along the way you will see beautiful beech trees and sparkling green chestnut trees and the road is covered with hundreds of chestnut husks with within shiny brown chestnuts still neatly ordered. The red, yellow and orange fruits of the koumoura give a cheerful touch to the landscape that now begins to take the colors of winter.
Trees of the sweet chestnut grow in Greece from an altitude of 400 to 1000 meters. Some are somewhere entirely on their own, others live together in woods. They can be up to 35 meters high and their roots spread extensively and deeply into the earth. New chestnut trees arise because chestnuts are taken away with rainwater or water from streams and are deposited somewhere in the earth. Also new chestnut trees grow in places where squirrels have hidden chestnuts in the earth.
The husk of a chestnut contains one to three chestnuts and as the chestnuts are ripe the husks tear themselves open. The harvest is a hell of a job where whole families deal with. With a bucket in the hand the prickly husks are picked from the ground. On a nearby village, Ano Milia (at 1000 m altitude in the Pieria Mountains) located chestnut plantation, the collection of the chestnuts alone keep families busy for over twenty days.
The sweet chestnut was held in high regard in ancient Greece and was a delicacy reserved for the elite. Honey was made of it, while numerous therapeutic properties were attributed to the chestnut. There are many recipes described in ancient literature and the sweet chestnuts are frequently mentioned in works by ancient Greek writers such as Homer, Xenophon and Hippocrates.
By the end of the Middle Ages the chestnut had a bad reputation and was associated with indigestion, headache, flatulence and an increased sex drive. Due to the huge increase in population the sweet chestnut became in certain parts of Europe the people’s food number one. Because the chestnut tree is an easy and rapid growing tree, he was planted everywhere where no other crops, such as cereals, wanted to grow. This harmed the quality of the chestnuts that became vulnerable for diseases. Fortunately, today’s chestnut again has a sound reputation.
The kastanás, the street vendor with his Foefoe and roasted chestnuts, works from the beginning of autumn to the end of winter. In the past, when the first rain began to fall, he began to prepare the Foefoe (a round, portable charcoal comfort of zinc, on which the chestnuts are roasted) and on his donkey traveled down the mountains to the city where he installed his Foefoe. While he waited for the coals to smolder, he made with a knife notches in the chestnuts, which he put on the Foefoe to roast. Sitting on a low stool he kept the fire burning and watched his chestnuts. When the chestnuts began rupturing he turned them around and waited until they were done. With fire tongs he took them out of the fire and put them in a cone made of old newspapers. The Foefoe exists today in several variants and the donkey is replaced by the car, but the smell of roasted chestnuts that you sniff when you walk through the city has remained the same
The Greek myth claiming that the chestnut tree is created from the body of the beautiful nymph Neas, who preferred death above the advances of Zeus, seems not very likely to explain the origin of the sweet chestnut tree. More likely is the origin of the chestnut from the land of Paflagonia as the Greek poet Ermippos writes. This country on the Black Sea, in the north of today’s Turkey, was inhabited by Greeks for many centuries before the Christian era.
The sweet chestnut has had many names until finally he was called “kástano”. Thus it was named “Nut of Zeus” by Ermippos in his “Formoforie” (440 BC.). In this poem Athens was hailed for its navy which assured its residents the import of all kinds of luxury goods from all corners of the (then known) world. About the chestnut he writes: “The nuts of Zeus …, provided by the people from Paflagonia, form the crown to every dinner.”
The Greek botanist Theophrastus (372 -287 BC) writes that all the slopes of Mount Olympus in the district of Pieria were covered with sweet chestnut trees. Only when the Greeks of Paflagonia began to trade the sweet chestnuts in the rest of Asia Minor and Greece, it became clear to the Greeks of Greece what they could do with the fruits of the sweet chestnut tree. The antiquity of Paflagonia is evident from the Iliad of Homer. It describes how Greeks of Homeric Paflagonia took part in the Trojan War. As early as 1200 BC Paflagonia was populated by Aeolian Greeks who came from the province of Thessaly, on the Greek mainland. Around 800 BC the city of Sinopi in Paflagonia was colonized by Ionian Greeks. Soon, other Greek people came and in the whole Black Sea area Greek cities were erected and the Greek language and culture were adopted by many indigenous peoples.
In the 2nd century BC Paflagonia is incorporated into the Pontic Kingdom. And so it became part of the huge area, roughly the entire northern coast of modern Turkey until deep into the inlands, which to this day is called the Pontus
So, it all started in the old Paflagonia, a country with an area of one hundred to four hundred kilometers, with rugged mountains, but also many very fertile valleys and vast forests. And in these forests the Greeks discovered that the fruit of the sweet chestnut is a very tasty food and they began to trade the fruit. And so the chestnut suddenly became a delicacy in Asia Minor and Greece. The armies of Alexander the Great and the Romans next, planted the sweet chestnut trees all over the rest of Europe, so that they could enjoy this treat of nature everywhere.
Greeks who grew up in the mountain villages of Pieria have sweet memories of the chestnut. In the morning chill the chestnuts were gathered, and at home grandma roasted the chestnuts in the fireplace while the children quarreled of impatience with each other over who could eat the first one.
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