By an open fire, we sat around a large wooden table which had been handmade by our friend’s great-grandfather some centuries past. As we chatted away, we worked at scoring an X into the flat side of a great mound of chestnuts, just collected from our friend’s chestnut grove.
We then laid the nuts out on a large grill over the fire. With an occasional expert shake of the grill to turn the nuts, we watched as they turned a lovely golden brown. The room became filled with the delicious aroma of roasting chestnuts, increasing our anticipation to such a point that all conversation ceased as we watched the fire turn these hard starchy nuts into a soft and delicious winter treat.
When it seemed that the roasting of the chestnuts was near completion, we carefully removed one to test.
Taking a paring knife, our friend peeled the shell from the nut, removed the furry inner layer, blowing cool air on his fingers as he did so. Once revealed the light yellow flesh of the chestnut was tasted, and having confirmed the chestnuts were roasted to perfection, we removed the lot from the fireplace and started to peel – and eat! – the delicious chestnuts.
Chestnuts are traditionally produced in the mountainous Amiata region of Tuscany, where there are seasonal festivals dedicated to the much-loved nut that results in a banquet of fantastic Tuscan chestnut recipes.
The surrounding forests are filled with chestnut trees, the nuts from which are turned into a range of delicious desserts and a few savoury dishes as well.
The most well-known traditional Tuscany dessert recipe made from Chestnuts is the ‘Castagnaccio’. There are two versions of this Tuscan dessert recipe, an ancient one made from whole chestnuts and a more modern version (only a few centuries old!) made from chestnut flour with raisins, pine nuts and sage. This Tuscan dessert recipe is typically eaten at Christmas time once the chestnuts have been turned into chestnut flour.
The ancient version of Castagnaccio requires boiling the chestnuts in their shells, peeling each one before mixing in the rest of the ingredients. It is certainly much more time concerning, but also quite delicious, and not too sweet.
Below we have included both recipes, one more modern version by Tessa Kiros and the other a much older peasant variety that utilises whole, boiled chestnuts.
Typically combined with the roasted nuts however is ‘Vinnovo’ – new wine.
And so it was, not ones to break age-old traditions, we enjoyed our new wine with our freshly roasted chestnuts, the crackling fire slowly burning out beside us.
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Castagnaccio Antico – Ancient chestnut flour recipe
600 g boiled chestnuts, peeled
5 egg yolks and egg whites, separated
150 g sugar
optional: brandy or honey
Mash the peeled chestnuts whilst still hot. Cream 5 egg yolks with the sugar. Mix into chestnut mash and drizzle in the cream, stirring all the while. A dash of brandy or honey can be added if desired. Stop adding in cream once the mixture is moist. Whip the egg whites until they form stiff peaks then carefully fold into the chestnut mix. Once well-blended, pour into a buttered (or oiled) cake tin and cook for 45 minutes at 200°C. Best served hot, and also nice served with whipped cream or gelato, and strawberries. You can also cover with grated chocolate if you like.
Castagnaccio – Chestnut flour cake
Recipe from Tessa Kiros’ ‘Twelve: a Tuscan cook book’
‘Originally this cake was made in December once the November chestnuts had been dried and made into flour. Nowadays chestnut flour and this rather unusual cake are both sold in November. As with all their traditional goods, the local people love this cake which they have grown up with’
Makes one 24 cm flat cake
80 g sultanas
400 g chestnut flour
8 tablespoons olive oil
about 450 ml water
80 g shelled walnuts, broken up into pieces
80 g pine nuts
2 sprigs of rosemary, leaves stripped off stalk
butter for greasing
breadcrumbs for lining the cake tin
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Soak the sultanas in a little warm water to soften them. Put the chestnut flour into a bowl with 4 tablespoons of the olive oil, a pinch of salt and the water. Mix in with a wooden spoon to make a smooth and fairly liquid batter.
Drain off the water from the sultanas and add half of them to the mixture. Add half of the walnuts, pine nuts and rosemary leaves, and mix into the batter.
Butter a 24 cm round or square cake tin and sprinkle with breadcrumbs to cover the bottom, shaking away the excess. Pour in the cake mixture. Scatter the remaining rosemary, walnuts, sultanas and pine nuts over the surface of the cake. Drizzle with the remaining olive oil.
Bake for about 50 minutes or until the top has a rich, golden, yet soft crust. Remove from the oven and when it has cooled slightly, cut into small squares. This is best served warm.