FESTA DELLA CASTAGNA IN ARCIDOSSA
Fall has many nice surprises one of which is chestnuts. In late fall, chestnuts pop up overnight in the medieval cobbled streets of Arcidossa, a little Tuscan Mountain village on Mount Amiata in the province of Grossetto. There you will find teams of men twirling the handle on huge, perforated metal bins full of chestnuts rolling over the hot coals under the bellies of the bins. When the husks slip loose on the roasted chestnuts, they will then be shoveled into white paper bags, passing them along to those patiently waiting for their bag of goodies. The line often winds down through the village as they patiently wait their turn. Then they will feast on their hot chestnuts as they wander thru the booths filled with local goods.
This, of course, is Tuscany’s Festa della Castagna and villagers near and far have been waiting for it. At the booths there will be more chestnuts to buy and these will be used in many forms from pasta, to breads to desserts.
An ocean away, something similar happens. In late fall chestnut vendors pop up overnight on the city streets of New York. You can barely walk anywhere close to Times Square or Fifth Avenue or Central Park without being drawn in by the smell of chestnuts or the whiff of smoke from the hot kettles. It’s November, it’s holiday season and New York is coming alive.Artisans from all over central Italy sell their wares at the Festa but the chestnut reigns in a rich program of festival events. Book presentations on the cultivation and harvesting of chestnuts and an array of lectures on the “noble chestnut” draw some and the stands offering food specialties of central Italy draw everyone.
At many a culinary stand, the chestnut stars: chestnut creams, cakes, pastas, flours, liqueurs at one stand, artisanal chestnut beers at another.
And in the Arcidosso bakeries, chestnut pies, cakes and pastries fill display cases; across the street, crates of chestnuts are for sale in front of the local fruit shop for those opting to roast chestnuts at home on the wood stove. At one booth, groups of local women offer their tempting homemade sweets, chestnuts the theme in each one.
Medieval crossbowers, bands, street musicians, choral concerts animate the chestnut celebration. And as day gives up to night, groups of families and friends fill the vaulted medieval cellars to feast on wild boar, soups with chickpeas, porcini mushrooms and chestnuts, pork roast with chestnut/apple sauce and chestnut/pear flans. Local volunteers cook up the goodness, with chestnuts starring in many a dish… but not only.
NOTHING BETTER FOR AUTUMN THAN TWO CHESTNUT RECIPES
1 ½ CUPS CHESTNUT FLOUR 1/3 CUP SUGAR
1 TB BAKING POWDER 2 TB COCOA POWDER – more for dusting
2 TBS HONEY PINCH OF SALT
½ EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL 2 LARGE EGGS – room temperature
1 CUP WHOLE MILK
½ CUP DRIGE CRANBERRIES
1/3 CUP WALNUTS – toasted, chopped ½ CUP RASINS
1/3 CUP PINE NUTS – toasted
VIN SANTO – for plumping raisins
Preheat oven to 350º.
Lightly brush a 9-inch cake pan with olive oil.
Put the raisins and dried cranberries into a ¼ cup of Vin Santo to plump them up.
Sift together flour, sugar, baking powder, cocoa powder and salt in a large bowl.
In a separate bowl, whisk together olive oil, honey eggs and milk.
Slowly pour the liquids into the dry ingredients, whisking very well and
Making sure there are no lumps. The batter should be smooth but a bit liquidy.
Reserve some of the fruits and nuts to sprinkle on top of the cake. Add the remaining to the batter
And mix well to make sure all is combined and spread evenly.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, sprinkle the reserved fruits/nuts on top and bake for about
25 minutes, or until the cake begins to swell lightly and the middle is set.
Remove from the oven and cool completely before removing from the pan.
When ready to serve dust lightly with powdered sugar and cocoa powder. When serving, sprinkle some warmed honey on each slice.
It has always been the custom in our house to start Sunday dinners or Holiday dinners with antipasti followed by a pasta dish. Some of our friends start with a soup and what better one to start a special dinner with than this delicious and satisfying Chestnut Soup!
4 SLICES BACON or PANCETTA – chopped 3 TBS BUTTER – unsalted
1 LARGE SHALLOT – roughly chopped 1 SMALL CARROT – roughly chopped
1 SMALL LEEK – roughly chopped 1 CELERY STALK – roughly chopped
3 GARLIC CLOVES – peeled and sliced 6-8 CUPS CHICKEN STOCK
2 ¾ CUPS WHOLE ROASTED CHESTNUTS – peeled and chopped
½ TSP NUTMEG – or to taste
SALT and FRESHLY GROUND BLACK PEPPER – to taste 1 SPRIG THYME
PINCH OF CINNAMON
½ CUP HEAVY CREAM
Using a large saucepan, cook bacon or pancetta, over medium heat until slightly crisp. Transfer to a plate lined with a paper towel and set aside to cool and crumble for garnish.
Pour off a little of the fat and in the same saucepan add the butter, vegetables and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally for about 6-7 minutes until the vegetables are soft but not crisp.
Add the stock, chestnuts, pinch of cinnamon and thyme and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and cook, partially covered until the chestnuts are very tender – 30-45 minutes. Remove from heat, discard thyme sprig and let cool slightly.
Working in batches, puree soup in a blender until smooth. It is best to put a towel over the blender when pureeing hot liquids as hot liquids sometimes cause the blender to pop the lid and spray the liquid.
Return the soup to the saucepan and warm over medium heat while stirring in the cream, nutmeg, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Continue cooking until the soup has gotten slightly thick – about 5 minutes. If too thick just add more broth. Pour into warmed soup bowls and garnish with the crumbled bacon or pancetta.
Once the fall months and cooler weather arrived, early years at home followed an Italian tradition of ending dinner meals with roasted chestnuts and a glass of wine. My Dad would actually not roast the chestnuts but carve a big X on each chestnut and cook them on the stove in his big cast iron skillet. Sometimes we enjoyed them with clementines, tangerines or a cheese. On holidays if we were fortunate enough to have a bottle of Vin Santo made and generously shared by my fraternal cousin, Andrea in Montefollonico, the little town where my Dad was born, that was savored and sipped in little glasses.