Between Chestnuts and Roasted Chestnuts: Autums in the Appennines has the scent of the forest
The chestnut civilisation and ancient recipes
The chestnut: a poor fruit that brought prosperity to those who possessed it. The richness of the chestnut grove lay in its versatility: fruit, wood and leaves were important tools and bargaining chips. Today we are left with traditions, proverbs and recipes.
Autumn is the season when the Apennines are at their best: chestnuts, mushrooms and shades of warm colours accompany visitors through the scents of the forest.
It was in the year 1000 when chestnut groves took the place of oak forests. From then on, the chestnut tree became one of the main resources of the population: the fruit was cooked in many ways, the wood was used for building or as fuel, its extract was used in dyeing and tanning, the leaves were used as bedding in the stables... All this earned it the name of 'bread tree’.
THE CHESTNUT CIVILISATION
For many centuries, the cultivation of chestnuts was the main means of livelihood for the locals. Chestnuts, rich in carbohydrates and highly digestible, were used as a dietary staple and proved to be a true wealth for those who possessed them. Their carefully regulated cultivation declined only with the spread of maize and potatoes but remained alive in popular tradition through nursery rhymes, proverbs and idioms. Did you know, for example, that 'babies are found in large hollow chestnut trees'?
Those who had a chestnut grove could sleep easyly, especially in times of famine. The plants were therefore cared for all year round until September, when they were weeded (the so-called armondatura, i.e. the cleaning of the soil in anticipation of harvesting). In October it was time to set up the hut in which the chestnuts were placed to dry (the so-called metato). A flour used for polenta, fritters, ciacci (chestnut flour crêpes) and cakes was then obtained.
Thanks to its versatility, the chestnut soon became a valuable commodity for exchange and payment with the inhabitants of the plains. Barter often took place with another particularly sought-after foodstuff.
Ideal for cultivation in sandy soils, the chestnut became a protagonist once again in the 1980s, thanks to a project to enhance and promote production aimed at reconstructing the history of this fruit and its traditions.
CHESTNUTS AND MARRONS IN COOKING
If you have ever wondered what the difference between chestnuts and marrons is, this is the right time of the year to find out. Don't get confused, these are two very different fruits that are easily distinguishable by both taste and shape.
While the chestnut husk can contain up to seven fruits, the marron husk contains only up to three. In addition, the surface of marrons is smoother and more uniform, allowing easier removal of the film that surrounds it. The skin is also different: the chestnut is brown and flattened while the marron is light and more rounded.
Chestnuts are less flavoursome and are best roasted, boiled or as flour, while marrons are sweeter and crunchier and are therefore preferred in pastries or gourmet preparations.
It is only by knowing and distinguishing these fruits that it is possible to master recipes for castagnaccio (plain chestnut flour cake), fritters, ciacci and all other autumn dishes. Don't you already feel like tasting a slice of chestnut cake by the warm light of the fireplace?
ROASTED CHESTNUTS: THE AUTUMN STREET FOOD
For many, autumn tastes like chestnuts and smells like roasted chestnuts.
Do you know the aroma you breathe in the towns of the Terre di Castelli, that scent from the stalls along the road? They are indeed roasted chestnuts, the autumn street food par excellence. It would be hard to imagine this time of the year without them.
Ideal for fighting the first colds, rich in vitamin B and phosphorus, excellent for coeliacs because they are naturally gluten-free, roasted chestnuts are a real panacea.
The magic is the work of the caldarrostai, the chestnut sellers whose exciting work is closely linked to the history and traditions of the area. To obtain good roasted chestnuts, they dry the freshly harvested fruit and make a cut that will prevent the chestnut from exploding with the high temperature.
Roasting takes place in a large special pan with a long handle and holes in the bottom. This is the most important stage: you should constantly turn the chestnuts to prevent them from burning. The heat should be high but only for a short time so that the chestnuts do not dry out internally. Once removed from the heat, the roasted chestnuts need to stand in a container covered with rags to continue cooking due to the residual heat.
The art of roasting chestnuts is also an art to be tried at home, taking great care to dry them before roasting, to make the cut on the rounder part of the chestnuts, to use a pan suitable for roasting, to choose them of similar size to ensure even roasting, and to wrap the ready roasted chestnuts in damp cloths to make them softer (cabbage leaves were once used).
ROASTED CHESTNUTS AT THE LOCAL CHESTNUT AND MARRON FESTIVAL
Today the Zocca chestnut is protected by a special trademark and celebrated every year in the Local Chestnut and Marron Festival (it. Sagra della Castagna e del Marrone Tipico). This event once again underlines the strong link between the region and chestnut production, which is already evident when visiting the Chestnut Museum.
This is the right opportunity to try the chestnut in all its forms, from soups to bread and desserts. Gastronomic stands perfume the city with delicacies: borlenghi (very thin and crispy salty crêpes), crescentine (flatbread with filling), cured meats, cheeses, ciacci, polenta, cakes, roast chestnuts, mistocche (tapered roll-shaped baked sweets with chestnuts)... There is also a handicrafts market and a market of objects to make the autumn in the Apennines even more characteristic.
CASTAGNACCIO: THE POOR MAN'S RECIPE FROM THE APENNINES
A typical sweet of these autumn days, made from chestnut flour, is the castagnaccio. The origins seem to date back to the 16th century, but as is often the case, there is no clear-cut recipe but rather several versions handed down through the family from generation to generation.
The recipe closest to the original uses walnuts, raisins and pine nuts.
Ingredients for 4 persons:
- Chestnut flour - 300 g.
- Water - 380 g.
- Sugar - 4 tablespoons
- Extra virgin olive oil - 2 tablespoons
- Walnuts - 40 g.
- Raisins - 40 g.
- Pine nuts - 40 g.
- Salt - 1 pinch
Soak the raisins and toast the pine nuts in a pan, then put sugar, oil and salt in a bowl. Stir using a whisk and add water slowly to avoid lumps forming. Then add half of the pine nuts, walnuts and raisins.
In a suitably prepared 26-centimetre baking tin, pour the mixture, adding the remaining pine nuts, walnuts and raisins on top. Bake for 35 minutes in a preheated oven at 180°. The castagnaccio is ready when cracks appear on the surface.
CHESTNUT AND BORLENGO MUSEUM
Located 4 km from the centre of Zocca, the Chestnut Museum is divided into three themed rooms dedicated to the old tools of chestnut culture: tools for harvesting and processing, dioramas of the habitat, and objects for storing flour. The Museo Laboratorio del Borlengo houses an exhibition room and a workshop for teaching processing techniques.
LOCAL CHESTNUT AND MARRON FESTIVAL
When better to taste the typical Zocca chestnut than during its festival? It is held on the last three Sundays of October. On this occasion, the town becomes a market exhibition and the air is filled with the scent of roasted chestnuts. Gastronomic stands, markets, music and entertainment: the link between Zocca and chestnut production is ever stronger!
SASSI DI ROCCAMALATINA REGIONAL PARK
It protects 2,300 hectares of land and is characterised by sandstone spires rising above a landscape of ancient chestnut groves. The 70-metre-high peaks originate from stratifications that are more resistant to erosion than the surrounding land. The wide biodiversity of habitats, concentrated in a small area, allows for the presence of a very varied flora and fauna.