Saturday, October 22, 2011

Chestnuts and mulled wine

There are 3 ways in Italy to tell that chestnut season has started:
1. Bakeries start selling a cake called castagnaccio – a Tuscan specialty, although it is made throughout the Apennines wherever chestnut trees abound.
2. The local newspaper devotes an entire page to the whereabouts of the countless chestnut festivals that will invariably be taking place throughout the month of October.
3. Chestnuts dominate seasonal restaurant menus.

The small osteria where we had lunch was offering specials of creamy mushroom and chestnut soup, handmade pasta with a chestnut stuffing served in a sage and butter sauce and escallops cooked in a brandy and chestnut butter. Desserts included a sweet fried tortelli stuffed with, yes, of course, more chestnuts.

The Italian culinary calendar is a cyclical pastiche of frenzied seasonal outbreaks. In-season bingeing is the norm and, as if to prove the point, after lunch we walked 2 kilometers from the restaurant to the stone hamlet of Scaria, deep in the heart of the Val d’Intelvi, in the mountains above Lake Como. I could smell the chestnuts roasting on the fire long before I reached the festival. We’d parked some distance from town as we knew the event would attract a good crowd (plus I wanted to try and walk off lunch!). Chestnut festivals – or castagnata, as it’s known – are always popular in Italy. Nothing draws crowds quite like nostalgia and chestnuts are one of those special seasonal foods that are always served with a generous dollop of the stuff.  As the aroma grew stronger I was already envisaging the open log fire, the flames towering around and through the pan, fingers and hands blackened, chestnuts hot to the touch.

We passed the church and joined the crowd in excited procession up to the playground above town. In the center of the car park three castagnoli – chestnut roasters, for want of a better translation! – were sitting in front of an open fire shaking blackened long-handled pans over the flames. Every town in Italy has a different contraption for cooking chestnuts. This was not entirely dissimilar to the domestic version. The handles had been elongated to create safe workable distance from the fire and they were hanging from chains attached to a scaffold to take the strain out of shaking. But other than that it was very much as anyone fortunate enough to have an open fire in their home would go about roasting chestnuts. 

Everywhere, people were standing, a bag of chestnuts in one hand, a cup of mulled wine in the other. It was chilly, as you’d expect in the Alps this time of the year and so the hot wine was particularly welcome. It also worked wonders with my appetite. Before long I’d finished one bag of chestnuts and was queuing for a second. After all, the season would be over soon. Better to eat them while you still can!

Chestnuts ‘alla vampa’
Castagne alla vampa

Serves 4
Preparation time: 10 minutes
Cooking time: 20 minutes

500g fresh chestnuts
50g caster sugar
100ml grappa or brandy

Make a small incision with a sharp knife on the flat side of the chestnut.  Don’t worry if you don’t have an open fire for roasting your chestnuts, they can be cooked in the oven.  Simply place them on a baking tray and roast in a preheated oven at 180ºC for about 15-20 minutes.  Give them a squeeze to see if they are cooked. If they feel soft they are done. Once cooked, peel the chestnuts and arrange in serving glasses/bowls.

Make a caramel by placing the caster sugar in a heavy-based saucepan and add a teaspoon of water.  Cook over a medium flame.  The caramel won’t take long to make so keep your eyes on the pan. When it turns a golden colour it is ready.  Pour a small amount of caramel over the chestnuts.

Finally pour a shot of your chosen alcohol, gently warmed in a saucepan, over the chestnuts and set alight!

TIP:  The caramel is very hot when you pour it over the chestnuts, so make sure your serving dishes are heat proof.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah Mario! A chestnut recipe! I was lamenting the fact on my blog the other day that I really don't know what to do with chestnuts... And you are right chestnut season is in full swing here. I saw a poster up in town mentioning several places with chestnut festivals over the weekend.