That time of year is upon us again. It’s the season Giacomo Castelvetro, Inquisition refugee and author of the 1614 manuscript The Fruit, Herbs and Vegetables of Italy, described as per la bocca (‘for tasting’). Few Italians would argue with the humanist thinker from Modena’s summation. Apples, pears and their gnarly, aromatic cousins, often thought to be the Golden Apple Paris awarded to Aphrodite, quinces. Clusters of juicy, ripening grapes. Umami-packed porcini mushrooms. Brillat-Savarin’s pungent ‘diamond of the kitchen’, the truffle. Orange-fleshed gourds, squashes and pumpkins that lend themselves so well to savoury and sweet preparations alike. Nutritionally-dense cruciferous plants like cabbages, cauliflowers and broccoli. And just to highlight the variety of produce currently available in Corso Brunelleschi, New World summer tomatoes and capsicums, an ornamental novelty in Castelvetro’s time, are still going strong too.
It’s also that time of year where my late summer energy and resolve deplete. The realities of returning to work set in. New students to get to know. Programming and planning. Meetings. Lots of meetings. Marking. Too much marking. And, as you may know from my Instagram feed and updated About page, I’m also attending a professional cooking course. Though I am enjoying it, there’s one aspect I’m struggling with – unlearning ‘bad habits’. Unergonomic (yet comfortable!) techniques for cutting and whisking have served me well as a home cook up until now. Using ‘the claw’ to stop carrots I’m cutting julienne-style from escaping and ensuring that only my wrist is moving when beating eggs are both going to take some time…
So, that late summer optimism of doing it all has died with the passage from summer to autumn. I am now bed with a tissue in one hand and a cup of loose leaf English Breakfast tea in another. A surefire sign I’m unwell; my beloved caffé has been discarded in favour of a tazza di té. Autumn, for the moment, is not for tasting, but per l’occhio (for looking).
My ability to savour autumnal fare has not completely abandoned me though. That tazza on my bedside table is accompanied by a plate which contains a slice of rather flat ‘cake’ called castagnaccio. Made with chestnut flour, water, olive oil and a scattering of pine nuts, sultanas and rosemary on top, the sweet yet mellow notes of this preparation are proving to be rather palatable to my weakened tastebuds. And just as well, as this cake is the subject of this month’s edition of Cucina Conversations, dedicated to the gastronomical traditions of All Saints (Ognissanti) and Souls (Tutti i morti) Days in Italy.
Falling on 1st and 2nd November respectively, these Catholic feast days honouring the saints and the deceased appear to have pagan origins. All Saints appears to have been introduced to christianise the Celtic festival of Samhain, which marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. All Souls (or ‘The Day of the Dead’), on the other hand, bears a striking similarity to the ancient Roman festival of Lemuria. Held in May over three days, Romans performed rites to exorcise restless and malevolent ghosts from their homes. Offerings of fava beans were made to propitiate the angry spirits. To this day, it is still customary in many parts of Italy to make a food-based offering (such as almond-based biscuits shaped like fava beans called fava dei morti, the subject of Lisa’s post) to the departed who are said to return to their old haunts for the day. The defunti or dead who return though are believed to be loved ones, not the malevolent spectres of Roman times. And, Italians continue to make a variety of accommodating gestures to their deceased relatives on these feast days. On 1st November (a public holiday) many families visit their local cemeteries and lay flowers, often chrysanthemums, at the graves of their loved ones. In the evening, before going to bed, some people refrain from turning the lights off. Others leave a bucket of water out. In my adopted region of Piedmont, an extra place at the dinner table, laden with food and water, is often set.
This month, the Cucina Conversations bloggers and I will be bringing you a mix of symbolic and seasonal preparations as part of our Ognissanti / Tutti i morti topic. On the symbolic side, we have Lisa’s fave dei morti and Marialuisa‘s ‘nzudi. Carmen is honouring a departed loved one, her nonno Rocco, with a recipe for his favourite biscuits, savoiardi. Daniela, Francesca and Flavia have opted for dishes made with seasonal ingredients such as Tuscan necci (chestnut crepes), pappardelle con zucca e porcini (pappardelle with pumpkin and porcini mushrooms) and apple torta sbrisolona (a crumble-like apple cake) respectively.
My recipe, castagnaccio, is part seasonal, part symbolic. Though not directly part of the food-offering ritual, this dense, crepe-like cake has come to be associated with these feast days simply because the chestnut harvest coincides with the period. As a result, castagnaccio is commonly found in the vetrine (window displays) of many bakeries in central and northern Italy at this time of year. Restaurants and trattorie often feature it on their All Saints Day menus too.
These days, confectionery made from chestnuts such as marrons glacés command a very high price. Yet, once upon a time, chestnuts played a pivotal role in keeping the poorer populations of the Appennine and Alpine woodlands nourished. In The Oxford Companion to Italian Food, Gillian Riley notes that, ‘chestnuts … are now almost a luxury, for depopulation and deforestation have made their daily use less common than now’. In Castelvetro’s time though, chestnut flour was often used to provision fortresses and woodlanders made a variety of preparations from the foraged fruit of castagna sativa such as stews, polenta and bread.
Though Castelvetro makes no mention of it, it is likely that simple and spare ( it is often prepared with minimal to no sugar) castagnaccio was also borne out of Italy’s central and northern woodlands. The central-northwestern regions straddling the Alps and Appennines – Piedmont, Liguria, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany – all claim castagnaccio as their own, but the Tuscan variant, which is usually no more than a 1 cm thick and includes pine nuts, sultanas and rosemary, is probably the best known. I had initially intended to post about the Piedmontese interpretations of this dense cake. These are usually thicker and include milk and sugar (or honey) in the batter. I found them too rich though, particularly if sweet amaretti biscuits and slices of apple (two ingredients some versions call for adding) featured in the mixture too. The beauty of some of the older Appennine recipes I’ve come across is that they are often sugar and dairy free, allowing for the mellow yet sweet flavours of the chestnut flour to come through. For those of you not used to sugar-free desserts, it’s definitely an acquired taste. I’m sure though that the spirits returning to visit us on All Souls Day will be begging to savour a subtle dessert with a slight savoury note alongside all those ultra sweet biscuits people will be leaving for them. So, be sure to set an extra place or two at your dinner table for this one.
I’ve made castagnaccio several times now with Pellegrino Artusi, a native of Emilia-Romagna and adoptee of Tuscany, as my point of reference. Since his turns of phrase are so charming, I’ve decided to provide you with the recipe in his own words. I have, however, included some footnotes with the (very slight) variations I made as well as more detailed directions about baking the cake. Pellegrino was notoriously vague about baking temperatures and cooking times!
240. MIGLIACCIO DI FARINA DOLCE (VOLGARMENTE CASTAGNACCIO)
CHESTNUT FLOUR CAKE (POPULARLY CALLED CASTAGNACCIO)
Take 500 grams (about 1 pound) of chestnut flour, and because it easily clumps up, sift before using it to make it soft and fluffy. Then put it in a bowl and season with a small pinch of salt. This done, add 8 decilites (about 3 ½ cups) (i) of cool water, pouring it in a little at a time, until the mixture has the consistency of a runny porridge into which you will throw a handful of pine nuts. Some people supplement the pine nuts with chopped walnuts; others add raisins and a few rosemary leaves. (ii)
Now take a baking pan where the chestnut cake can rise to a thickness of one and half fingers. Cover the bottom with a thin layer of olive oil, pour in the chestnut porridge, and sprinkle another two tablespoons of olive oil on top. (iii) Take it to the baker to cook in the oven or bake it at home in a Dutch oven with fire above and below.(iv) Remove and serve hot.(v)
You can also make fritters with this batter.
(i). 800 mL
(ii). I used a generous handful of the following: pine nuts, sultanas (raisins) and fennel seeds (as per a 19th century Genoese recipe I found for this cake). The sultanas should be soaked in water for a least half an hour and then drained before adding them to the batter. I let my batter rest for half an hour and I sprinkled the pine nuts, sultanas and fennel seeds into the batter after pouring it into my rectangular baking tray measuring 34cm x 27cm. I have also made a smaller, circular castagnaccio several times with a baking tray measuring 26 cm in diameter (for this I used 300 g flour and 510 mL water, the same flour to water ratio as Artusi).
(iii). I didn’t add these extra two tablespoons of olive oil on top.
(iv). I had my oven preheated to 195 ° C and I baked my castagnaccio for 30-35 minutes or until I noticed cracks appearing on its surface and edges that had begun to shrink way from the sides of my baking tray.
(v). I let my castagnaccio cool in the baking tray and then sliced and served it at room temperature.