Friday, October 29, 2010

Off the Beaten Track: Roman Chestnuts

Our guest this week is Patricia Winton, who writes traditional mysteries that focus on Italian cuisine, inspired by years of eating in the country. She has enjoyed languid summer lunches under a grape arbor in the Tuscan hills, shared a dish of tripe with complete strangers sitting elbow to elbow at a Florentine market, and learned to make pasta by hand from an Italian chef. Her work features an Italian-American journalist who has returned to her mother’s native Italy after losing her job when her newspaper folds, her husband when he finds a younger model, and her mother when breast cancer wins the battle. A native of the American South, Patricia now lives in Rome. She is a member of Sisters in Crime and its Guppy chapter.

My first apartment in Italy was on Via dei Castagni, Chestnut Tree Street. It was a funny little apartment with a kitchen where both the top of the fridge and the sink struck me below my hip bone. I always entered the kitchen in a crouch. When I moved there I’d never seen a chestnut tree because disease had destroyed most of those in North America at the beginning of the twentieth century. Oh, I’d seen beautiful old furniture crafted from chestnut wood, and I’d memorized portions of Longfellow’s “Under the Spreading Chestnut Tree” in school, so the name of my street had a romantic allure. It was inevitable that I would fall in love with chestnuts while I lived there. Now, many years later, I always think of that apartment at chestnut harvest time.

And chestnut harvest time it is. In the chestnut woods, where the trees can soar to 50 feet (15 meters), families carry baskets and wear protective gloves to gather these jewels. The nuts have a spiny outer shell that can really stick you. Fortunately, these outer shells tend to split open before the nuts fall. Each one contains two to five chestnuts, and when they fall, it seems that more chestnuts occupy that outer spiny shell than lie on the ground. Thus the gloves. In the markets, mounds of these shiny brown orbs are appearing. I walked up and down the market yesterday looking for the biggest ones I could find. I boiled some last night with a bay leaf. They are so sweet that I’ve eaten almost all I cooked even though I wanted them for tonight’s dinner.

And best of all, the caldarrostai, roast chestnut sellers, are setting up their grills in the piazzas in central Rome. The aroma of roasting chestnuts wafts up the Spanish Steps and meanders through narrow little streets. The caldarrostaio sits before a large round grill with a lower level filled with charcoal and a flat, perforated top. He slits the chestnut shells with a sharp, short-handled knife before putting them on the grill. The chestnuts that have already roasted are heaped onto a waiting tray the same size as the grill. The caldarrostaio can maneuver the tray over the grill to keep the chestnuts hot. When a customer stops, he (and they all seem to be men), scoops up a serving of hot chestnuts with a slotted spoon and pours them into a paper cone. The streets are littered with chestnut shells at this time of year.

I love the scent, but I have to admit that I never buy roast chestnuts in the street. I watch tourists eagerly taking their paper cones and give myself a secret hug because I know that I can recreate that aroma and flavor at home. I use a chestnut roasting pan which looks rather like a long-handled frying pan with quarter-inch holes in the bottom.  The caldarrostaio’s grill has a similar surface, but it’s much bigger. You can use these pans over an open fire as in The Christmas Song or over a gas flame on the kitchen stove. Or you can roast them in the oven. One enterprising Italian friend uses the microwave, but his wife points out that the ensuing smoke has discolored her microwave from pristine white to grungy yellow.

One caution, if you decide to roast chestnuts. They are like popcorn. Steam accumulates under the shell, and the chestnuts will explode as they heat up. Because chestnuts are much larger than popcorn, they can become deadly missiles as they burst. To eliminate this danger, you must cut through the shell to allow steam to escape. For years, I tried cutting a circle around the middle of the chestnuts,  but I’ve adapted the method of the caldarrostai. They cut a slit over the curved side so that when the steam escapes, the shell opens up revealing the creamy nut underneath. I slice an X into the flat side with a box cutter. The X opens up, making it simple to remove the shell.

Chestnuts have been a mainstay in the Italian diet at least since Roman times. They are available fresh during the autumn and dried year round. You can even buy chestnut marmalade and chestnut flour. My Encyclopedia of Italian Cooking has almost fifty recipes, ranging from pasta to main dishes to dessert. There’s a beef stew made with dried chestnuts, carrots, and onions; an exotic ostrich steak with chestnuts and raisins; many soups, especially with chick peas; and a host of desserts ranging from puddings to cakes.

Now, I think I'll head for the kitchen to make sausage with chestnuts for dinner.

18 comments:

  1. Just fine. I have to mop the drool off my keyboard! What a treat to read such a scrumptious and informative piece!!!

    A wonderful way to begin my day!

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  2. Patricia, your post brings back memories of living in Germany and Austria where you could also buy roast chestnuts from street vendors. Like in Italy, they'd use those perforated roasting trays and pour the nuts into a paper cone. I used to buy them in the winter and warm my hands around the package on my way to class.

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  3. What a lovely post, Patricia! I never quite understood the Italian fascination with chestnuts till now. As prevalent sights and smells on the streets of Rome, they're really a part of everyday life. And so many recipes? I'm tempted to try one, especially some baking with chestnut flour. Thanks for the delicious post.

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  4. Heidi and Supriya, thanks for your warm welcome. And thank you for inviting me to be your guest.

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  5. Kath, How nice to see your face. Thanks for your kind words.

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  6. Patricia: Your description is wonderful. I have been in Italy many times during "chestnut season" and will be in Tuscany for three weeks in December. You have reminded me to roast some of those wonderful nuts in our forno. Even if you are fond of the nut, the aroma is worth every effort. Thanks for your lovely post. AND, I'm going to have to find a copy of your Encyclopedia!!

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  7. Cassy, I'm glad you came by. It is fun to roast chestnuts in the pan with holes in the bottom. But honestly, the forno (oven) is easy. Just don't forget to cut through the shell!

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  8. Patricia, I should never have read this post before lunchtime (Australia) because now my stomach is growling! I never knew Italy had such a fascination with chestnuts. I'll be sure to go to Italy in chestnut season - it sounds divine!

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  9. Alli, they are mouthwatering. Are there chestnuts in Australia?

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  10. Yes, chestnuts are definitely grown in Australia but I wouldn't say they are included as a staple in most people's diets. After your descriptions of ways to eat chestnuts, I think I may need to make sure they are eaten more regularly at my house - I think I'll need to hunt for some recipes!

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  11. Mmmm. I have some cashews, but they don't seem the same. Oh to be in Italy during chestnut time! Thanks for the trip.

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  12. Hi Kaye, Cashews are my secret weakness. I'll just have to roast more chestnuts.

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  13. Funny, I realized that I never tried Chestnuts… As a kid I remember pulling out Cedar nuts out of the big cone that someone gave me as a New Year gift (they are similar to Pignoli nuts and Russian New Year is similar to Christmas) but I somehow totally missed out on Chestnuts… Gotta try now!

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  14. Lina, perhaps no chestnuts in Russia, ok, but you were in New York, too!

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  15. MMM.CAN'T WAIT TO HAVE SOME TOO...PERHAPS WITH ROSSO DI PITIGLIANO!!

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