Milan, 26 September 2017
A few days ago, my wife and I decided that for our usual afternoon walk we would take the subway up towards the northwest of Milan and then walk back home. This strategy had us walk through a small park that was once part of the grounds of the royal palace. As we walked down one of the park’s shady avenues, conkers started raining down on us. Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s say that two or three seed balls came cannoning down from above our heads and landed with a thump on the gravel, releasing their conkers which rolled around our feet. I picked one up and rubbed it gently with my fingers. Fresh conkers are really lovely, with their brown, lustrous skin and their smooth velvety feel.
Their seed casing is also very pretty, bright green with soft spikes all over it.
More than anything, though, conkers bring back happy memories from my childhood. I still distinctly remember during the breaks in the schoolyard fishing out my conker from my pocket and squaring off for conker duels with my friends. For those of my readers who are not familiar with this playground game, let me quickly explain how it works.
– Find a conker.
– Drill a hole through it with a nail.
– Thread a shoelace or other such string through the hole, and make a strong knot at the end.
– Face your opponent.
– One of you lets his conker dangle, let’s say your opponent.
– You swing your conker at his conker in a rather special way – see the photo below, which looks to have been taken during my boyhood years.
– If your opponent’s conker breaks, you win. If not, you dangle your conker and your opponent takes a swing at it.
And so on, until either one of the conkers breaks or the bell rings and it’s time to go back to those boring classes.
Conkers was, of course, a game of Autumn, played in the first month or so of the school term until the conkers stopped dropping off the trees and the conker supply dried up. Other games then took over the schoolyard until it was mid-September again and time to prepare that monster conker which would surely smash all other opponents in the schoolyard.
In case any of my readers are wondering, conkers come from the horse chestnut, that tree which gives lovely white or pink flowers in the Spring
and which in the last several decades have often looked distressingly mangy by summer time
the result of attack by the leaf miner moth. It seems that this disease was first noticed in Macedonia and has been marching across the globe ever since.
Perhaps, like I used to, some of my readers think that chestnut trees and horse chestnut trees are related. I mean, the nuts in both cases are so similar, as are their casings!
Yet they are not. They each belong to quite different families. I suppose this must be a case of convergent evolution.
One thing which very definitely distinguishes them is that conkers are not edible, but chestnuts very much are. And in fact in this Autumn season, Milan’s shops and markets are putting out piles of chestnuts to entice you.
I haven’t yet seen chestnut roasters on street corners, though.
Maybe they only appear when the weather turns cooler. I await them with anticipation, so that I can buy my paper cone full of roasted chestnuts.
Conker seed case: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3838298/amp/The-end-conker-Playground-staple-vanish-15-years-horse-chestnut-trees-felled-pests-disease.html
Playing conkers: https://www.google.co.uk/amp/s/www.pinterest.com/amp/pin/437834394994706958/
White horse chestnut tree in flower: http://www.davekilbeyphotography.co.uk/index.php/plants-landscapes/species-trees/horse-chestnut-05/
Pink horse chestnut in flower: https://ag.purdue.edu/btny/ppdl/Pages/POTW_old/6-10-13.html
Horse chestnut attacked by leaf miner: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo-common-horse-chestnut-tree-damaged-by-the-leaf-miner-moth-cameraria-39467824.html
Chestnut and casing: http://tcpermaculture.blogspot.it/2012/09/permaculture-plants-chestnuts.html?m=1
Chestnuts in an Italian market: http://mercatidiroma.com/mercato-trionfale/trionfale
Chestnut roaster, Italy: http://www.alamy.com/stock-photo/chestnut-street.html
Cone of roast chestnuts: http://www.ricettedalmondo.it/caldarroste.html