I bought a kilo of chestnuts, actually local marroni, this morning at my favorite fruit and vegetable shop in Camucia. (Why I was buying them when I have three big beautiful chestnut trees at the end of my garden is another story which I will discuss at a later time.) The pretty daughter of the owner smiled broadly as she topped up the bag: “Oggi e San Martino,” she said, “today is San Martino.”
I forgot, as I do every year, that the feast of St. Martin of Tours, who divided his cloak with a beggar, is November 11th. It’s an odd but important holiday. Nothing closes down for San Martino, banks and schools stay open, but the day traditionally symbolizes the beginning of winter, even though astrological winter won’t come for another six weeks. Throughout Italy, in fact throughout the wine-drinking Mediterranean, it’s a day for the first taste of the new season’s wine: San Martino, San Martino, they say in Tuscany, ogni mosto diventa vino, meaning the grape must should have turned into wine by now—otherwise, forget about a good vintage.
It’s also in Tuscany a day to roast chestnuts around the evening fire while you sip the new wine, hence the shop girl’s knowing smile. She expected to sell a lot of chestnuts today.
Forty years ago, that was a typical winter evening’s activity in our village. They called it fare le bricce. I never found out what bricce meant and never heard the term used anywhere else but up here in the mountains. When I was first invited to fare le bricce, I thought they were inviting me to play bridge and I refused politely. Later, I found out what I’d been missing. Here’s how it happened, maybe in some places happens still: Someone, usually a grandfather with little else to do, patiently cut a cross in the tough shell of each chestnut and tossed them into a long handled roasting pan with a perforated bottom. Then someone else, almost always the signora della casa, set the pan over the glowing embers of the hearth fire and patiently tossed it over and over until all the chestnuts had cracked open to reveal their sweetly meaty, cream-colored insides. While she did that someone else prepared the next step, folding a kitchen towel to cover the bottom and sides of a woven basket. The chestnuts, once done, were dumped into the basket and immediately a glass of red wine was turned over the top, then the edges of the towel were drawn up to cover the nuts which steamed slightly and softened in the now hot wine. Then it was time to draw closer to the fire and pass the chestnuts, cracking them and dropping the shells right on the kitchen floor, while stories, jokes and riddles also got passed around. A stomach, young or old, could get pretty filled up on chestnuts and when there wasn’t much of anything else to eat, chestnuts were even more welcome.