Anthony on That Old Chestnut

I went for a drive through the central highlands of Victoria over the Easter and was struck by the many roadside offers of fresh chestnuts for sale. Reader, we drove by.

I had a memory that fresh chestnuts take some wrangling: scoring the base of each nut, roasting, then getting the skins off by rubbing with a tea towel and so on. I was obviously having a Shirley Conran-esque “life’s too short…” moment.

But another part of me was heralding chestnuts as the harbinger of winter. My first trip to Europe nearly twenty years ago took place over the northern hemisphere winter, and the smell of roasting chestnuts in Rome, Paris and Barcelona was a revelation. When a few years later roasted chestnut vendors appeared on the wintry streets of Melbourne’s CBD, initially the scent was a part evocation of those European cities.

By way of aside: because of Melbourne’s reliance on trams, not that many buses pass through the CBD. Occasionally I do get a whiff of diesel as buses pass down some streets, and I’m immediately transported to those metropolises that make greater use of buses: London, Sydney, Rome, Paris. Tragic, really, that the intake of diesel fumes can make me feel I’m on holiday. Now if only those roasted chestnut vendors set up
shop nest to Melbourne’s prime bus routes, my vicarious tourism would be complete.

Anyhoo, one aspect of the chestnut I now embrace is chestnut flour. Since I started to cook for myself, I’ve collected, borrowed and browsed Italian cookbooks, and many of them have a recipe for “castagnaccio” – a chestnut flour cake that hails from Tuscany. The recipes generally describe a cake made of chestnut flour, water, olive oil, rosemary and pine nuts. That’s it. Sometimes it’s sweetened with honey. It’s invariably described as “rustic”, which hardly begins to sum up the absolute peasant austerity of the recipe. And, strange as it may seem, on perusing these recipes, I was never ever tempted to bake a castagnaccio.

Until, until… I had the pleasure of working near Queen Victoria Market in Melbourne several years ago and a wonderful café that fronted onto Elizabeth Street with all sorts of delights offered “castagnaccio”: a lovely plump, honey-coloured slice which, when tasted, was the perfect mid-morning coffee accompaniment, the chestnut flour and honey combining to evoke the flavour of exotic spices, the rosemary adding an incredible floral yet savoury moment, the sultanas being bursts of fruity sweetness, whilst the pine nuts referenced a Neolithic past.

So this is what I had been missing out on?

I raced home, dug out my recipes for castagnaccio, whipped up this frugal concoction of chestnut flour, oil, water, rosemary, pine nuts and sultanas and… well, it tasted exactly like you would imagine such a concoction to taste: bleagh!

So my mission was to replicate this café castagnaccio. Them at the café gave nothing away, but eventually the fantastic Karen Martini published a recipe for “Chestnut, honey and rosemary cake with pine nuts” in the Sunday Age (it now appears in her second cookbook, Cooking at Home). This was what I was after: not the taste of Tuscan peasant winters with their frugal ingredients, but a lovely cake enriched with eggs, butter, sugar and milk.

So here is the Karen Martini recipe, which whilst a homage to “castagnaccio” she has the good grace not to call castagnaccio, but which I urge you all to bake

(Check the use-by on any chestnut flour you purchase: it doesn’t keep too long, and is milled in the northern hemisphere and so is out-of-season come our winter)

200g chestnut flour
100g self-raising flour
185g unsalted butter
160g brown sugar
185ml water
185ml milk
1 egg
1 egg yolk
4tbsp honey
80g sultanas
1 sprig of rosemary
50g pine nuts
2tbsp olive oil

Heat oven to 180C and grease and line a 20cm x 30cm tin
Combine flours and butter to form something resembling coarse breadcrumbs. Add sugar.
Combine bicarb of soda, water, milk, egg, egg yolk and honey and whisk well. Add sultanas and half the rosemary and stir.
Add the flour mixture and mix well, then pour batter into the tin. Scatter with pine nuts and remaining rosemary. Drizzle with olive oil and bake 35-45 minutes, or until cooked when tested with a skewer (natch).


14 thoughts on “Anthony on That Old Chestnut

  1. I _love_ chestnuts, but they’re not for the time poor. So yes, there’s a bowl of them that’s been sitting on the bench for a couple of weeks now.

    Have you read Laura Schenone’s The Lost Ravioli Recipes of Hoboken? She talks about going to a chestnut flour mill in Liguria and realising that the kind of fresh flour that really made the dish wasn’t available in the States at the time. The way she spoke of the just-milled Italian flour made me very, very jealous.

    My favourite ever chestnut dish was at a little bistro in East Sydney when I first lived there, I think it was called Otto, on Stanley St. They made a dessert ravioli of chestnut, dark chocolate and dried fruit with cinnamon ice cream. I had it EVERY TIME I went there 🙂

  2. I love chestnuts too – they take me straight back to Siena in winter – I once made a chestnut soup, which was excellent. As Zoe says, it’s not for the time poor. So these days I reckon chestnuts are communal, scoring chestnuts is a good thing to do in company, during the pre-dinner drinks, while someone else is cooking the dinner itself.

  3. Sheesh, you wouldn’t catch me paying nine bucks a key for that kinda merch.

    Cake sounds lovely.

    If you’ve got fresh ‘uns and want to go the real value-add labour-intensive maneuver, then a puree de marrons (pasta de castagna, YMMV) is a pretty awesome thing. Just roast ’em and grind ’em – sweeten if you want. Put it next to the quince paste on a cheeseboard. Yum.

  4. FDB, where’s that nine bucks reference come from?

    BTW, does your puree de marrons involve skinning the chestnuts, or simply roasting them and then bunging them in the grinder? Am always looking for shortcuts

  5. FDB, where’s that nine bucks reference come from?

    From the pic in your post!

    BTW, does your puree de marrons involve skinning the chestnuts, or simply roasting them and then bunging them in the grinder?

    Yeah, you’ve got to lose the skins I’m afraid.

  6. Although I think the roasted one I’ve made is a variation on the classic, where the chestnuts are boiled for a while after scoring, then peeled, then boiled again till cooked.

    I understand the peeling part is easier with these parboiled nuts than roasted ones, but can’t say so from experience.

  7. I love chestnuts too! I made a chestnut cheesecake with rum sauce for my mum’s birthday a few months ago. Yum! I love the grainy texture and richness.

    Anthony, you aren’t the only one to associate diesel with Europe. Diesel fumes on a cold morning takes me back straight to German autobahns in January and my first Euro trip in 97, at 18.

  8. Yes, it was coffea what I was referring to apropos the higher level castagnacio. And they do fantastic sandwiches/baguettes etc. And you can get a beer and/or a great coffee

  9. I actually tried this cake this morning at the market and now Mum and I want to recreate it!
    Did you find that the cake was almost layered in two? The top was lighter and the bottom was denser, sugary, almost biscuity in texture? Did your recreation have that bottom layer or was it the same the whole way through?

  10. Coffea make the best Castagnaccio Cake If anyone has a recipe for a light one like theirs I would love to make it
    Please Help

  11. thanks for this. I had cut it out and lost it when moving house!
    FYI if you store the flour in the fridge, like nuts, it does not go off so fast.

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