Thursday, 7 February 2013

Chestnuts and Farina Doce Flavours Takes A Peek Into A Traditional Drying Shed

Chestnuts are always welcome; despite their fiddly skins, roasted on an open fire, they are symbolic of autumn and are a rare and also an expensive treat when transformed into marron glace.

The Italians are particularly fond of these taste bombs and for the older generation, chestnuts have been a staple in tough times and were the difference between being fed or going hungry.

We may well associate them with autumn but the chestnut can be used all year round. Try and source some farina dolce which is composed of milled chestnuts to make sweet flour. 

This product can then be used to construct pancakes or Castagnaccio; a delicious but extraordinarily dense cake that is transformed into something slightly different by every home cook who bakes it.

Perhaps surprisingly chestnuts are also made into a form of polenta which is often then eaten with ricotta cheese; it has a slight sweet tang but is definitely not dessert but isn’t quite savoury either. One can imagine this peasant staple now being an expensive rediscovery served up in a chic city restaurant.

The Italians have much to be thankful for when it comes to the chestnut tree whose wood is used for both furniture and fuel. In times past it was known as the bread tree or l’albero del pane’ as every part was so useful in sustaining families in Tuscany.

In the mountains you will find chestnut drying huts and a cottage industry still survives, although these days the back breaking job of gathering chestnuts by hand is over. Just imagine the hard work bending over all day, searching for nuts under the leaf litter and also parting them from their prickly and somewhat vicious outer casings. The whole family would be press ganged into this activity as no chestnut could be left to rot.

Like the olive machines there are now mechanised vacuum cleaners which suck up everything and spit out shiny nuts, which is a welcome technological development.

Although you can now buy chestnuts peeled and frozen or tinned as excellent kitchen standbys, dried chestnuts are still sought after and there is a skilled process involved.

A chestnut drying hut is made up of two separate levels. A fire, which never does more than smoulder is kept alight at the bottom; chestnuts are then  laid out on a slatted floor above. Chestnut wood and last year’s shells are used to keep the heat at an even temperature beneath a thick coating of warm ash.

The process of drying chestnuts goes on, rather biblically for 40 days and nights; the fire is tended, the chestnuts are turned regularly, until they are pronounced dry. They are then stripped of their skins and sent to a miller who then transforms them into flour quite often using a wooden mill. There are not many drying huts left as the work certainly does not yield much financially but it is a tradition and therefore a passion. Most artisan producers are dismissive of commercial drying units which have sprung up in parts of Tuscany saying the flavour is completely different and lacking ‘il sapore dovuto’ or the right flavour; you can just imagine!

So if you wish to try a Tuscan treat why not take a Flavours Holiday this year and while you are ticking off the days on the calendar you can make a chestnut flour cake if you can source some in a local Italian delicatessen.

You will need:
500g chestnut flour
A pinch of salt
650ml water
I orange, juiced and the zest removed
4 tbsn of a good olive oil
Leaves from three sprigs of rosemary
75g pine nuts
75g of walnuts pieces
The oven should be preheated to Gas Mark 6 or 200 degrees C

Use a rectangular baking tin of a medium size and brush oil over the surface.

The chestnut flour goes into a mixing bowl first with the pinch of salt then slowly add water ensuring you keep stirring with a wooden spoon throughout the process. If you have done this correctly a liquid batter without lumps should have formed. At this stage you can remedy the lump situation by pushing the mixture through a sieve and back into the mixing bowl using the same spoon. When you are happy with the consistency, add the juice and zest of the orange, stir and then gradually add the olive oil.

At this point you are done and all that is left is to pour the batter into the cake tin then scatter the pine and walnuts alongside the rosemary leaves on the surface. Drizzle the whole cake with olive oil and place in the oven.

Baking time should be around 40 minutes depending on your oven but certainly a good indicator is when the top is nicely browned and a knife or skewer comes out clean when inserted into the centre.

Turn out onto a wire rack and serve with maybe a slice of ricotta or any fresh cheese, a handful of nuts, a few wedges of orange perhaps; don’t tell anyone but I think it’s ripe for experimentation!

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