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Italian chestnut market hit by Chinese imports

Italians fearful of copycat Chinese imports killing off demand for their prized homegrown delicacies have added another culinary touchstone to the danger list: the chestnut.

As cheaper Chinese chestnuts flood the market, Italian harvests have plunged by 70% since 2005 to 18,000 tonnes this year due to the arrival from China of a deadly wasp, Dryocosmus kuriphilus, that damages trees by laying eggs in them. "It means that in 2013, chestnut imports are due to exceed domestic production for the first time," said Lorenzo Bazzana, economic adviser to the farmers group Coldiretti. "We are getting the Chinese imports, which have a fainter taste, as well as imports from Turkey, Spain and Portugal," he added.

Once boiled and milled by rural Italians to make flour for baking, the chestnut formed the mainstay of diets in poorer communities as a substitute for cereals, with production reaching 829,000 tonnes in 1911 before the postwar economic boom boosted spending power.

Today the large marroni variety has made a comeback as a prized delicacy in puddings, as well as roasted on street corners in winter. But as the Chinese wasp has spread across the country and production has dropped dramatically, prices have shot up, leading unscrupulous vendors to label cheaper Chinese imports as Italian, said Bazzana.

An Italian consortium of producers, Castel del Rio, said it had found 5,000 tonnes of chestnuts on the market bearing its name, when it produced only 550 tonnes. "This is nothing but fraud," Bazzana said.


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