Chestnut Season: Letter from Teverina

Four big old chestnut trees define the edge of what we cheerfully if inaccurately call the garden, right where the slope of lawn descends into forest. They were planted a good 70 years ago, maybe more, by disreputable old Tenente. At least he was disreputable by the time I knew him—he may have been respectable when the trees were planted.

We call the trees castagni, chestnuts, but every year Arnaldo reminds me that they aren’t chestnuts at all. They are marrone, a type of chestnut, yes, but sweeter than the meaty ordinary chestnuts—it’s the same difference in French between châtaignes and marrons, and they are what become marron glaçés, glazed chestnuts.

Now in October the nuts are starting to fall from the trees, many of them still wrapped in their spiny burrs, and the boar were going crazy with gluttonous lust until Arnaldo stretched a double wire of electric fence around all the trees. Now, he says, the black squirrels are having a field day and there’s no way an electric fence will keep them out.

This is becoming a haven for wild animals down here. I lived in Teverina for 25 years without seeing a single deer and suddenly they are all over and more destructive than either boar or squirrels because they stand on their hind legs and literally rip the branches off the apple and pear trees trying to get at the fruits. My friend Gemma is more philosophical about it—it’s nature’s way of pruning the fruit trees, she says. But I’m about ready to declare open war.

Today Arnaldo collected a basket full of marrone and brought them up to the house. They’ll keep for quite a while—long enough for Sara to make her deservedly famous ravioli di marrone when she gets here. (I will ask her to post the recipe.) Years ago people used to invite us to come by in the evening to “fare le bricce.” It took me a while to realize that they weren’t asking us to play bridge, but rather to roast chestnuts in the embers of the fire, shaking them in a long handled pan then dumping them into a basket lined with a kitchen towel. Then a glass of red wine was poured over, the towel wrapped around the chestnuts, and they steamed and softened briefly before they were opened up for a night-time treat. That, plus more red wine (in glasses) and lots of tales from the old days, constituted la veglia, evening social life up here in the mountains. But that was a long time ago.

Meanwhile, I’m making necci, chestnut-flour pancakes, not with marrone but with farina di marrone, flour made from dried ground marrone, that I bought a while ago at an old grist mill. The necci remind me that Italy, despite television, despite universal education, is still a place where regional habits, dialects, and customs are strong. When I suggested to the chef at Villa Campestri that we might make necci one day, he looked at me in some perplexity. Chef Jerry is a sophisticated man and as a chef he knows a lot about kitchen techniques from many parts of the world. But when I mentioned necci, he said to me: “Necci, huh? Aren’t they from Pistoia?” As if to say, why on earth would I know how to make something that comes from so far away, all of 70 kilometers (about 40 miles) according to Google Maps. Jerry is from the Mugello and in the Mugello they don’t do necci.

Nonetheless, if you can procure yourself some farina di marrone, or farina di castagna if the marrone kind isn’t available, you are in for a treat even if you’re not from Pistoia. Here’s how:

Mix about a cup and a half of flour with a little more, say two cups, of water, beating with a fork to get rid of the lumps. It should be as liquid as light cream, or the consistency of the batter for French crêpes. Beat in 2 tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, then use a little more oil to grease your black iron crêpe pan and set it over medium-high heat. The necci should be quite thin because you’re going to be rolling them around a filling. Do them one by one and stack them up and keep warm until they’re all done. With this amount, you should be able to do six or seven necci.

Now take a little more than half a pound of well-drained ricotta (in Pistoia it would be sheep’s milk ricotta) and mix it with a couple of tablespoons of heavy cream or crème fraîche, a good handful of chopped toasted walnuts and some liquid honey, not too highly flavorful—acacia honey is good. If you have to use farina di castagna you’ll want more honey, but farina di marrone is naturally quite sweet. Some people add other things to the mixture—cinnamon maybe, or bits of bitter chocolate, or candied peel. I like the purity of honey and walnuts. Mix together and then spread a little (couple of heaping tablespoonsful) down the center of each neccio and roll it up. And there you have a perfect treat for afternoon tea, or even a light supper with a glass of vin santo if you wish.

I should add that around Pistoia they spread the necci batter on flat terracotta saucers, made expressly for this purpose, and lined with chestnut leaves. They stack the saucers one atop the other, then set the stack in the fireplace to cook. Or at least so I’m told–and maybe I’ll try it one of these days.

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