Coming from the United States, I knew chestnuts as a luxury treat reserved only for the Christmas season–though we’re far more likely to sing along to the lyrics “chestnuts roasting on an open fire” than actually make good on these words and roast the nuts ourselves. I was shocked, then, arriving in Italy and discovering how ubiquitous this legendary holiday nut is here.
At the moment, I’m living in Piedmont, the northwestern region of Italy ringed by the Alps. One day this past autumn, I accompanied a few Italian friends on a hike through the beautiful Roero Forest. The trees were lit up in golds and oranges, signaling that fall had fully arrived. As we walked, I commented on the curious spiky spheres, almost like burrs, that littered the path everywhere. “Those are chestnuts–castagne!” a friend told me.
Chestnuts! Really?! The coveted, pricy Christmastime nuts we devote entire songs to in the U.S.? Sure enough, I turned one over in my hand, (carefully) cracked into the interior of the spiky shell, and was rewarded with fresh nuts. I was in awe at the sheer abundance of the nuts, at how freely the chestnut tree lavished its fruit–you couldn’t even take a step without crunching one lightly underfoot.
Indeed, it turns out, chestnuts were traditionally known as l’albero del pane, or the bread tree, because of how integral they were to northern Italian peasant cooking. If all else failed, if a year’s harvest was paltry, the chestnut tree could still be counted on to provide plentiful food, and even bread could be coaxed from its fruit. So central are chestnuts to the lore of Italy that numerous legends surround them. As one tale has it, the villagers of one mountain town encountered a famine so severe that, having nothing to eat, they were left to fall on their knees and pray to God to give them something–anything–to eat. God heard their prayers and granted them the chestnut tree, from which they could harvest the fruits to eat. The devil, however, was also listening in, and to prevent the poor people from being able to eat from the chestnut, he enveloped the nuts in a shell of spines. Again, the people prayed to God for help, and he heeded their prayers once more, descending upon them and making the sign of the cross. The shells of the chestnut fell open, and to this day, you know a chestnut is ready to eat when the shell cracks open in the shape of the sign of the cross.
While not as celebrated as the grape or the olive, chestnuts are almost as characteristic of the Mediterranean region, thanks to their dissemination by the Greek and Roman empires. The humble nut even figured in the writings of Italian literary greats like Pliny the Elder and Virgil. The Medieval Ages might have been the peek of the castagna’s reputation–in those times, it was thought to have aphrodisiac qualities (though perhaps any sort of sustenance could function as such during those grim times). While I can’t attest to those claims personally, I can confirm that chestnuts are incredibly nutritious–rich in fiber, amino acids, and minerals like phosphorus, magnesium, manganese, and potassium. For peasants, especially those who lived in mountainous regions where growing wheat was difficult, they also served as an important source of carbohydrates.
With today’s modern food system, chestnuts are no longer quite such a vital staple of the Italian diet–but they continue to be enjoyed from time to time nonetheless. You’re most likely to find chestnuts at a castagnata–that’s Italian for a chestnut roast–being cooked over an open fire and emitting heavenly, earthy-caramel smells. If you’re lucky, the castagnata will be also be accompanied by some vin brulé, or mulled wine, which is a common libation in the north of Italy enjoyed to pass the cold winter months.
I returned several days later to the forest by myself and loaded my bag full of the nuts, still baffled by the generosity of the chestnut tree. It turns out, however, that while the chestnuts may be given freely, they do not come so easily after all. Harvesting and processing chestnuts is quite labor intensive–after roasting, each shell has to be meticulously cracked open and peeled off entirely, and I have to confess that I gave up on my project after only successfully managing to collect a half cup or so of nuts. But with that admittedly meager amount, and with a considerable supplement of locally grown and ground flour, I made a loaf of bread that may be one of my best yet–perhaps due in part to all the labor and the gratitude that went into it. If you’ve got a sourdough starter on hand, here’s the recipe I used!
- 50g ripe sourdough starter
- 355g lukewarm water
- 9g fine sea salt
- 125g whole wheat flour, preferably artisan
- 375g all-purpose or Type 0 flour
- 60g roasted chestnuts, peeled and crumbled into pieces no bigger than an M&M
In a large bowl, mix starter into water until dissolved. Add flour, salt, and chestnuts, and mix until thoroughly combined. Cover and let the dough rest for 30-60 minutes.
Using extra flour as needed, form the dough into a ball by folding the dough in on itself several times. Then, flip the dough over so the seam side is facing down, and gently cup the dough and roll it towards you in circular motions, creating tension and a smooth, supple surface. Place the dough back in its bowl, cover and let rest for 1 hour, and then perform 1 set of stretch and folds. Cover the dough once more and let rise overnight at room temperature, 10-12 hours.
In the morning, take the risen dough and reshape it by using the same method as above. Let the dough rest for 30 minutes on the counter seam side down and covered. In the meantime, prepare your proofing basket or small bowl lined with a kitchen towel and sprinkle with flour.
For the final shape, repeat the shaping method once more, then place the dough seam side up in the proofing basket to proof for 1 hour. Place a dutch oven inside your oven and preheat to 450 degrees F. After 1 hour, cut a piece of parchment paper to fit your dutch oven. Gently turn the dough out onto the parchment paper and score the top in any design you’d like! Transfer the dough into the dutch oven and bake for twenty minutes with the lid on; then, remove the lid and bake for 20-25 more minutes, until the crust is dark and…crusty.
Most bakers encourage you to wait at least an hour for your loaf to cool before slicing in, but with this chestnut loaf, I found myself too overcome by its tempting smells and had cut in before fifteen minutes had passed!