A day in the life of Italian Castagnes, aka Chestnuts . . .
When I get a calendar for the upcoming year, I make a habit of marking all the significant dates of the year. I first highlight the birthdays of family and close friends, holidays to be spent with family, any travel arrangements made in advance, and indubitably, without a doubt, either the last Saturday of the month of October or the first Saturday of the month of November. This is the date for “Chestnut Day”.
Yesterday, Ander and I attended the 25th Annual Chestnut Festival held at the Zeni Ranch. We have known the Zeni family for several years now and have made the trek to the Mendocino hills to join with family and friends in the festive celebration of the seasonal harvest of Italian “Castagnes”.
"Who said money doesn't grow on trees? I beg to differ . . ."
It started as a gathering for family and friends to get together to harvest chestnuts from the 100–year-old trees . The third generation of Zeni’s, brothers John and Raymond, host the event with their families each year. Originally, “by invitation only”, the event has continued to grow through the years and now has “bus load” tours on occasion. There is now a tour of the ranch given by the Zeni brothers during the event. I’m sure it won’t be long before the fourth generation will pick up and take over the tour. This ranch is a superb example of sustainable living. The vineyard is contracted to a major winemaking company. Raymond’s wife, Jane, raises and sells hogs and rabbits for meat as well as homemade soap made with herbs grown on the ranch. Jane’s main garden includes the usually suspects of corn, beans and squash (the three sisters) among other vegetables. Her flower garden is grown up the hill near the barn and chicken coop. She and Ander always share chicken stories with each other. Jane also manages the cash box during the chestnut sales.
The event also includes a MAJOR Potluck. The buffet table is prime real estate when it comes to the myriad of dishes from all cuisines. Guests bring a dish to share with everyone and find a comfortable seat to dine under the grape arbor or somewhere under a chestnut tree. Jane's Rabbit stew always makes an appearance each event. The stew is prepared over a period of two days in the cast iron dutch oven that has been used by the family over 4 generations. I like it over hot, creamy polenta. Pass the zin, please...
"Buffet Line . . ."
"Jane's Rabbit Stew . . ."
"Tamales . . ."
"Veggie Sushi . . ."
"Paella . . ."
During each visit, I always make a pilgrimage to the grafted apple tree that bears up to 5 different apple varieties. The Christmas tree area is full this year. Nice green trees had benefited from the early rains at the beginning of the year. The weekend after Thanksgiving is another full day of guests coming to get their fresh holiday tree. I noticed some trees marked “Reserved” for returning, loyal buyers.
I always look forward to the walk over the hill, through the vineyard, across the meadow to the grove of trees that surround the family cemetery. It is peaceful and serene. There is something about the ranch that gives me an invigorating, revitalizing and refreshing feeling. The scenery is stimulating and enlivens the senses.
"Grape Arbor . . ."
The people we’ve met through the years recognize us as a familiar part of the event. We don’t do anything special to get recognition. We just mingle and share our excitement for the day. We’ve watched the fourth generation of Zeni kids grow up to be young adults that appreciate and value their family. Matriarchs, Shirley Zeni and “the sisters”, Dolly and Inez take their place in the house at the kitchen dining table where they play card games. This year, Aunt Inez, did not attend as she has been recuperating from an illness that struck her and had her in the hospital for several weeks. So it was Aunt Dolly walking alone, holding a makeshift walking stick, that we met on the way up the hill to the family cemetery. She greets us and exclaims how much she “loves the fresh, crisp autumn air that energizes” her whenever she comes to the ranch. It’s great to see the various “animated” characters that come through from year to year. This year, I observed more dogs attended the event. I was impressed by how well the dogs got along with each other. There was mention of one dog that was part Timber wolf. I spotted this beautiful breed just sitting around, “chillin”. Airedale Terriers have a special affect on Ander. He grew up with an Airedale and their sightings always bring back very happy childhood memories.
"Chevalier . . .chillin . . ."
There were still some old friends stopping by to taste some of the Zeni Zinfandel being offered by the family at the roasting area. Raymond mans the roasting pan full of chestnuts to sample and enjoy.
"Chestnuts Roasting . . . "
"Handmade roasting pan . . ."
"Chestnut in the husk . . ."
"Belly up to the bar boys . . ."
"Italian Chestnuts - U-pick,$2.50/Lb. ~ They-Pick,$3.00/Lb."
It was a great day. We stayed well after the sun had set and the majority of guests had departed. We made arrangements to return to the ranch during the week, as we did not get a chance to pick any “castagnes/castañas”. We were too busy catching up with family and friends as well as making new friends that shared in the pleasure of the hospitality of the Zeni Ranch. It’s worth the drive through the majestic Redwoods and anticipating the quest for the tastiest Italian chestnuts ever!
Life is a banquet, my friends.