Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Old Chestnut Shed

The town of Pontremoli
In a non-descript shed a few kilometers above the small town of Pontremoli in the far northern reaches of Tuscany, Alberto Bellotti throws another jagged bough on the fire pit. Flames immediately engulf the well seasoned chestnut wood. With a metal hook he reaches over and roughly drags a large, blackened cast iron pan into the centre of the inferno. With the same hook, he lifts a domed lid and drops it into place with the effortless precision of a man who’s done this a thousand times over. To the outsider it might seem like a lot of effort to make a few pancakes. But to Alberto it’s more than that; it’s about keeping a tradition alive.

I’m in an area of Tuscany called the Lunigiana – literally, the ‘land of the moon’. This is not the Tuscany of rolling hills, cypress trees and olive groves. In fact, such is the contrast with the tourist stereotype that whenever locals leave the area on a day trip, they still speak about ‘going to Tuscany’.  The landscape here is a breathtaking, fairytale land of castles, ancient mountain villages, Romanesque churches, towering mountains, forests and old stone bridges. The cuisine is different too. To begin with, the culinary influence of regional neighbors, Liguria and Emilia-Romagna, speaks out in many local dishes. But more importantly, the seasons and the mountainous habitat dictate the diet, most noticeable in the dependence upon lamb which graze in high pastures, cheeses made from the milk of sheep and goats, foraged foods, wild herbs and greens, mushrooms and, not forgetting, the ubiquitous chestnut. 

As it happens, the shed we are standing in is an old chestnut drying shed. From the outside it looks like an inverted ice-cream cone, slightly cylindrical at the base tapering off into a tall funnel-shaped roof with a hole at the top. The centre-piece of the room is a cavernous fire pit. In the old days, as the name implies, the hut would have been used to dry chestnuts. Throughout the fall, sacks of nuts would have been suspended from a rafter high above the fire. Once dry, the nuts would have been ground to make flour which in turn would have been used to make everything from local breads to a version of fresh pasta to polenta to castagnaccio, otherwise known as the ‘poor man’s cake’.

The Tuscans were masters in frugality. They made a virtue of it. In the same way that no self-respecting Tuscan would ever countenance throwing away good bread – or any leftover food for that matter – so too, even the flames of a fire would have been put to multiple use. In Pontremoli, along Tuscany’s mountainous northern border, one of those uses would have been making testaroli, the area’s most popular answer to pasta. After all, why waste a perfectly good fire? Alberto Bellotti is one of only three artisans left in the world who still make testaroli in the time honored fashion.  

To the uninitiated eye, the testarolo looks like a supersized pancake.  Made from a batter of flour, water and salt, the testarolo is approximately 40-45 centimeters in diameter and a few millimeters thick. Whilst it might well look like a pancake, there the similarities end. To begin with you can’t flip a testarolo as you would a pancake in your home kitchen. That’s because they are traditionally cooked in a testo, a cast-iron pan which weighs a hefty 25 kilos. Try flipping that!

The testo is most likely a Roman invention, with earlier versions been made from terracotta. It’s a piece of culinary engineering that was, you could argue, ahead of its time. Along with its dome-shaped lid, the pan was used not so much like a frying pan, but as you would an oven. To demonstrate, Alberto places the testo directly over the flames where it remains until it becomes smoking hot. He then drags it to the side, adds a ladleful of batter and replaces the lid. The residual heat inside the covered pan and time are left to do the rest. After about 90 seconds he lifts the lid, scoops out a perfectly cooked pancake and adds it to a growing stack.

Albert Bellotti
 The Irish, the Welsh and the Scottish once used a similar device known as the griddle (in Scotland it was called a ‘girdle’). More a hotplate, however, it would have been placed directly over the flames and used to cook breads such as Irish soda and potato breads, Welsh pancakes known as drop scones and Scottish oatcakes. The precursor to this method of cooking would most likely have been cooking over a hot stone.

Traditionally a testo could be found in every household in Pontremoli and indeed such was its importance that in 1391 the city levied a tax on them. They would have been used for everything from roasting meats to baking savory vegetable tarts. Today, you’ll still find a testo in many homes in the area but they’re generally assigned a decorative function.

A couple of things that haven’t changed in the Lunigiana are the appetite for testaroli and the preferred method of cooking. Testaroli can still be found on the menu of practically every restaurant in the region and they’re still habitually cooked at home. The method is simple. Once the pancake has cooled, the testarolo is cut into small diamonds, boiled and served hot, most often dressed in a basil pesto sauce made with a generous measure of the finest Tuscan extra virgin olive oil. Occasionally, in the fall, when local porcini mushrooms are in season, they are served with a creamy mushroom sauce.

Making testaroli in a chestnut drying shed is a dying tradition. Today Alberto only lights the fire when he has accumulated sufficient orders. After all, there’s no point in wasting good wood for a handful of pancakes. Frugality, truly another Tuscan tradition, is a hard habit to break.

If you want to read more about Tuscan food traditions and perhaps try a few authentic recipes from the editors of the Silver Spoon Kitchen, take a look at the book I authored, Tuscany, which was published by Phaidon in early 2011. Taking each of Tuscany’s 10 regions in turn, the book details the history and traditions behind the region’s cuisine, covering household staples such as Tuscan ribollita soup, pappa col pomodoro and the fiorentina steak, as well as favourites such as Tuscany’s cantucci biscuits.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Mario - can you recommend any great Puglia cookbooks in English. Have you (or do you plan to) researched or written anything on Puglia.

    PS love the tuscany book cover

    Spencer, Nardò, Lecce