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When Bread Grew on Trees

By Daniele Cybulskie

Medieval people ate a lot of bread. A lot. They ate pounds of bread every day, and even used it as plates – or trenchers – which sounds both practical and delicious (although trencher bread was usually stale). But the bread they ate wasn’t always made of wheat, or even rye. In some parts of Europe, especially the mountainous regions of Italy, France, and Spain, they made their bread out of something that literally grew on trees: chestnuts.

Chestnuts/Flickr
Chestnuts – Photo by cookbookman17/Flickr

As the population grew, more people needed to find more to eat, but wheat can be tricky to grow in rocky terrain. Enter the humble chestnut tree, which is happy in the mountains because of the good drainage they provide (CooksInfo.com). Although Romans ate chestnuts, too, medieval people spent enough time planting and grafting chestnut trees that chestnuts began to replace oaks in the forests, and meat in Italian diets (Montanari, p.108). Landowners even encouraged chestnut farming by including clauses on increasing chestnut production in some home rental contracts (Abulafia, p.180). Chestnut flour was used so often for making bread that some mills ground it exclusively (Montanari, p.112). As Montanari notes in Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table:

The chestnut became a “mountain bread” that replaced “genuine” bread where the latter could not be obtained: it was called “tree bread” in the region of the Mediterranean, and the chestnut tree came to be known as the “bread tree.” (p.108)

Although bread was a hugely popular way to eat chestnuts, it wasn’t the only way. They could be eaten by the handful, they could be boiled, candied, fried, soaked in rosewater, or cooked with salt, pepper, sugar, or even orange juice (Montanari, pp.113-114). People even ate them in tarts, pies, and soups, and with veggies and pork (Montanari, p.114-115).

Speaking of pork, growing chestnuts meant protecting them. A natural threat to the chestnut crop was pigs, who were banned in Sambuca from wandering near the precious groves until “ten days after the chestnuts had fallen [with herders] seeing to it that they did not go more than ten arm lengths beyond the path” (Montanari, p.110). Because chestnut trees were also convenient fuel in the form of kindling and charcoal (Abulafia, p.180), people were also a threat. An early Longobardic law requires the same fine for cutting down a chestnut tree as for an apple or a pear tree (Montanari, p. 107).

Although medieval people declared chestnuts to be super-nutritious (and one Early Modern writer called them “a lusty and masculine food for Rustics at all times”), man cannot live on bread alone. Chestnuts contain a good amount of potassium, magnesium, and vitamin C (USDA), but eating mostly chestnuts most of the time wouldn’t be the best idea. Medieval people realized this and noted one of the downsides of a high-chestnut diet: constipation (Montanari, p.116). But because chestnuts stopped things up, this meant that the best time to eat them was at the end of the meal, when you’re ready to stop up your stomach, having finished putting stuff in it (kind of like corking a bottle). As Montanari relates,

In 1266, a curious agrarian contract drawn up in the region of Asti by one dominus Pacia stipulated that the tenants were responsible for two annual dinners, which were to begin with a lemon, followed by various meats accompanied by appropriate sauces and a dish of vegetables, and to end with a “paradise fruit” and six chestnuts. (p.116)

Eating just the right amount of chestnuts at just the right time may have helped medieval people avoid that tricky complication, although they might not have stopped the flatulence that CooksInfo so seriously lists as a consequence of eating them. (If that happened, Early Moderns could turn to Erasmus’ wise advice.)

Buy Daniele's new book
Buy Daniele’s new book

Despite the potentially awkward results of eating chestnuts, you have to hand it to medieval people for ingenuity in times of scarcity. Creating bread from something that could be so easily gathered must have saved many, many lives. For Massimo Montanari’s chapter on “The Bread Tree”, check out Medieval Tastes: Food, Cooking, and the Table; for an entire book on how the humble chestnut shaped history, check out Italy in the Central Middle Ages: 1000-1300 by David Abulafia; and for a couple of medieval bread recipes (sadly, not chestnut bread), check out Medievalist.net’s article “Bread in the Middle Ages”.

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Visit Danièle’s website: danielecybulskie.com

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