Attenzione! Chestnuts Roasting

Whenever I think of chestnuts roasting, I imagine the weather outside is frightful and, for some reason, the movie Die Hard is playing in my head. If I dig a little deeper, I am quickly transported to my childhood in Rome, in the ancient quarter, where the caldarroste set up shop in all the prime spots along the big tourist piazzas, from the Spanish Steps to Piazza Navona. Caldarroste literally means “ hot-roasted” but in Rome, like everywhere else in Italy, “hot-roasted” can only mean one thing; round-bellied chestnuts, roasting over a charcoal grill, perfuming those piazzas with the unmistakable aroma of frightful weather yet to come. It was especially true when a strong wind whipped by. That’s when the the flinty spark of the chestnut shells cracked and flew out from the grill, making a simple street food purchase feel ominous. I loved the open-air theatre of the caldarroste.

The scent of the chestnuts roasting would set the stage…. but as you got closer, the vendor would start his performance.

(Act I): Reel you in with his loud but heart-warming call: “Cal-da-rrosteeeeh” !

(Act II): Roll the chestnuts over the grill then deftly curl butcher paper into a makeshift paper cone and with a tiny metal shovel, scoop up the chestnuts into the cone before

(Act III): Hold the cone of roasted chestnuts out to you like a new boyfriend with a bouquet of roses. Such was the power of the three act play on my childhood memory that years later, as a chef in Boston, I designed an exact replica of that butcher-paper cone and transformed it into a bread basket using a spiral metal stand.

But in all honesty, the real portent in the transaction was elsewhere, and the vendor knew it, hence his cautionary word to you EVERY TIME before handing you the bouquet: “attenzione!” he would warn —That literally means “pay attention” but it’s also a catch-all phrase used by ALL Italians that can mean anything from: “watch-out, these are hot” to “I’d be leery of investing your money with that guy”.  You see, in Italy, there are very few “things” that are common to all Italians, least of all, language and food and I never tire of showcasing this to my cooking school students or travel guests because this is what makes Italy so special. 

Travel 50 miles in any direction and you are likely to encounter completely different customs, idioms and traditions. Travel 100 miles and you might as well be in another country. But attenzione is readily understood by Sicilians and Milanese alike so, regardless of the situation where it is expressed, EVERY Italian knows exactly what you mean at that given moment.  Go ahead, give it a try next time you’re in Italy.  Need to exit a crowded stadium in a hurry ?  Shout attenzione and it doubles for “excuse me”. Unsure how to dress for the day’s weather? Attenzione is a reminder to always err on the side of caution. Driving on an Italian highway?  Well, you’ll see attenzione signs every few hundred feet. For a people with a reputation for daring and breaking rules, they sure get a lot of attenzione in their lives.

Chestnuts roasting is another thing all Italians understand.

Maybe it’s because the European chestnut tree (Castanea Sativa) is native to the Mediterranean and just about every region in Italy claims that chestnuts (castagne) belong to them.  In Piedmont, where the Piemontesi share a border with France, they are terribly proud of their “marron glace“, chestnuts candied in a sugar syrup and glazed. In Liguria, the northern coastal strip often referred to as the Italian Riviera, Canestrelli di castagne are butter and honey cookies made with chestnut flour, sold in bakeries from Genoa to Portofino.  In Tuscany, they make a local raisin cake that’s paired with, what else but… Vin Santo! True to their rustic Tuscan dialect, they call the cake Il Castagnaccio (the big chestnut one). To be fair, “cake” is a bit of a misnomer as chestnut flour does not rise and it is more of a dense loaf or pancake. Growing up in Rome, I had never had any of these regional treats.  They were delicacies from other countries, after all.  

Chestnuts Roasting

The first time I ever tasted Castagnaccio I was 22 years old, working as an apprentice in a legendary restaurant, La Mora, in the small town of Ponte a Moriano, just outside of Lucca. Tuscans survived on Castagnaccio during WWII when wheat flour was scarce but chestnuts, fortunately, were everywhere. All you had to do was wait for fall (typically the chestnut tree will yield fruit from mid-September to early November) and pick them up and grind them into flour. Those chestnuts roasting kept many Tuscans from starving and it’s probably why they are so fond of this raisin and pine nut “cake”, even though it hardly compares to other sweet treats from the region like Florentines or the Panforte di Siena (the rich spice and nut cake from the medieval city of Siena). All the same, here is a classic recipe for Castagnaccio. If you want to impress a Tuscan, this is the treat that will make them misty in the eye. Attenzione! You don’t want to mention what I said about the Panforte (unless your Tuscan friend is from Siena). We don’t want to start another feudal war.

Ingredients for Il Castagnaccio

  • 3 3/4 cups (400 grams) chestnut flour
  • 3 tbsp (45 grams) granulated sugar plus a pinch of salt
  • 2 1/2 cups (625 milliliters) cold water
  • 3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup (100 grams) golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup (20 grams) walnut pieces
  • 1/4 cup (35 grams) pine nuts
  • 1 sprig of fresh rosemary, leaves picked & finely chopped

Step by Step

1) Combine chestnut flour, sugar, and salt in a bowl. Add the water, bit by bit, whisking to avoid lumps. (The consistency should resemble pancake batter). 

2) Add 2 tablespoons of olive oil to the batter and let the mixture rest for at least 30 minutes.

3) In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350º F (180º C) and soak the raisins in cold water for 15 minutes then drain them.

4) Pour the batter into a 12- by 8-inch (30- by 20-centimeter) baking tray lined with parchment paper. The batter should be 1/2-inch thick (about 1 to 1.2 centimeters) inside the baking tray. 

5) Evenly scatter over the drained raisins, walnuts, and pine nuts. Finish with rosemary and the rest of the olive oil.

6) Bake for approx. 30 minutes or until you begin to see small cracks appear all over the top. Do not over bake or it will become very dry. Let cool in the pan then slice into squares and serve. This keeps well for a few days in an airtight container at room temperature (do not refrigerate as the texture becomes hard and rubbery).

A note from Ecco – The next time you hear ‘Chestnuts Roasting’ we hope you’ll think of Italy and the magical pictures she paints.