Fall has arrived and this past weekend was dedicated entirely to the finding and consuming of chestnuts. On Saturday we collected them in a friend’s castagneto (chesnut tree grove) where a couple of hours of back bending and hand prickling work ended in a fairly common Italian fashion – with some good food and wine.
Then on Sunday, I curved along the country roads, where the terrain of the low hills of Anghiari turns mountainous on the approach to Caprese Michelangelo. The name of this town is telling. It is most famous for being the birthplace of Michelangelo. (Born: March 6, 1475).
For generations Michelangelo’s family lived in Florence. However, at the time of the artist’s birth, his father was the judicial administrator of this small town and had relocated the family there. Not long after the birth, they hustled back to Florence, but Caprese remains the artist’s true birthplace and the people of Caprese (rightfully so) are very proud of this fact. The house where Michelangelo was born still stands and the inside is dedicated to a museum about the artist. Beyond the house and the church where the master was baptised, there is little more to see in Caprese.
Second to the artist, Caprese Michelangelo is famous for its chestnuts (castagne or marroni). In Caprese, the past two weekends were spent celebrating the onset of autumn and the arrival of the chestnut season with the annual Festa della Castagna where chestnuts are transformed in more edible variations than you could imagine.
The highlight of the festa was the Baldino or Castagnaccio (same idea – different name depending on where you are or who you talk to). Castagnaccio is a vaguely sweet, dense, bread-like cake made with chestnut flour, raisins, pine nuts and rosemary. Beyond licking the bark of a Vermont Red Oak in October, I can’t imagine how one could taste autumn more directly.
After a few pieces of Castagnaccio followed by a healthy portion of Polenta di Castagna con Ricotta, I needed to think carefully about my next choice. I opted out of the Montebianco (pureed chestnuts, sugar, and whipped cream masquerading as a dessert, but really little more than a sugary brick) and went for something a little lighter – roasted chestnuts in rum (yum).
I’ve included a recipe for Castagnaccio below for those who can get their hands on some chestnut flour. It is very easy and relatively quick to prepare and bake. My apologies that the quantities and temperatures are not converted. I was reluctant to do so without any way to verify the effect. Please send me the numbers if you successfully convert the recipe with good results.
300 grams chestnut flour
About 400 ml of water
4 Tablespoons olive oil – plus some more for drizzling
40 gr. pine nuts
40 gr. raisins (preferably golden)
1 sprig of rosemary
Pinch of salt
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees celsius.
- Soak the raisins in warm water for about 30 minutes or until soft. Remove them from the water and dry them thoroughly.
- Sift the chestnut flour.
- Grease the bottom and sides of a baking dish (round or square) round diameter about 27 cm.
1. In a large bowl, make a batter from the flour, oil and water and salt. Add the water little by little to ensure the right consistency – it should be like a thick cake batter. (The amount of water may differ slightly based on the flour.) Stir with a wooden spoon or a whisk until all of the lumps disappear.
2. Add the raisins and mix until they are well blended into the batter.
Note: Some of the rosemary can be finely chopped and added into the batter as well at this time. Alternately, it can just be sprinkled on the top before putting in the oven.
3. Pour the batter into the greased baking dish, taking care that the height of the batter, once spread evenly, is no more than 1 cm high.
4. Sprinkle the pine nuts over the surface of the batter. Remove the rosemary needles from the stem and sprinkle on top. Drizzle with olive oil.
4. Bake in the oven at 180 degrees celsius for about 40 minutes or until a toothpick plunged into the center comes out clean.
Castagnaccio can be served hot or cold.