food, history and art – some ruminations by Fredrika Jacobs


CASTAGNE (Chestnuts)

“He who is versed in cookery is not far removed from genius, since the meals that are to be concocted are largely a matter of ingenious composition.”
– Bartolomeo Platina (1421-1481) in an undated letter to Cardinal Giacomo Ammannati Piccolomini.

It’s November and I am in Rome… it’s the season for truffles (far too costly for the poor Pulcinella of the 16th century to afford!) and (the more affordable) chestnuts!


There is nothing new about the delights of chestnuts. To escape the city and its ills – outbreaks of plague, malaria, the poor & the destitute – the urban elite took the countryside. During the 16th & 17th centuries luxurious villas were constructed where they could pass the days hunting, feasting & drinking with great conviviality. Chestnuts found their way into many a delectable dish.

Maestro Martino of Como, cook to Cardinal Trevisan, Patriarch of Aquileia, and 15th century culinary expert, provided the following farro (wheat grain) torte recipe with directions for its adaptation to seasonal offerings.

Clean the farro well and cook in a good fatty broth, then remove and let dry (as you would rice). “Take a libra [approximately 329 grams] of fresh cheese, and a half of libra of good aged cheese, crushing the one and grating the other, as one customarily does. Take a pork belly or veal udder a libra of that has been cooked almost to the point that it breaks apart, finely chop with a knife, adding some good spices and sugar if desired, and 15 eggs with a bit of saffron. Mix all these things together well; place in a pan to cook with a crust only on the bottom. When it appears to you to be almost done, take some well drained lasagna, and add them on top, in a thick layer; and let it continue to cook; and when it has finished cooking, top with some sugar and rose water.

For a CHESTNUT TORTE: follow the above, substituting the farro with chestnuts that have been boiled, dried and finely chopped then passed through a fine sieve with a little milk. Add extra saffron.

I happened upon a far more elaborate version of a Chestnut torte on the Via Scrofa!

Chestnut tart

As for a chestnut flavored pasta, combine wheat flour with chestnut flour, which Bartolomeo Scappi observed in 1571, “is sweeter and has fewer filaments in it than any other flour.” Scappi includes instructions for a chestnut soup, which actually sounds like it has the consistency of grits and, when cooled, can be sliced, fried, and topped with a sprinkling of sugar and cinnamon.

Galen condemned them, but in his 1618 annotation of Ugo Benzi, Giovanni Lodovico Bertaldi observed that nobles enjoy them when roasted over coals in a perforated pan.
This echos Giacomo Castelvetro, “Brieve racconte”: Discussing autumnal fruits & nuts, he notes there are several ways to cook chestnuts:
“Firstly roasted in a perforated dish over the fire, then left under hot ashes” then seasoned with orange juice rather than sugar. Many, he says, eat chestnuts “with a sip of wine after each one, which leaves them reeling if the wine is young and sweet. Simply boiled in water they are food for peasants and young children rather than discriminating adults. We also cook chestnuts in good quality sweet, white wine, and when they are done, strain them and put them to dry in the smoke. We call them ‘biscottelli’ and they are marvelous preserved this way, and keep for a whole year.” As for bread made of chestnut flour, Castelvetro recommends using only the “smaller ones, which tastes sweet,” adding it has a long shelf life and is ideal for stock-piling in fortresses as a wartime provision.

A final note of interest from Castelvetro: “When roses are in bloom our ladies take quantities of those dried chestnuts and mix them with rose petals in coffers and baskets, where the chestnuts soon become soft and very fragrant.”

On a recent visit to Naples – the home of Pulcinella, whose like is every where, I came across the following recipe for CASTAGNACCIO. (I hope you can translate grams…but here’s some help: http://www.gourmetsleuth.com/cooking-conversions/conversions.aspx)

omnipresent Pulcinelle in Naples!!!

omnipresent Pulcinelle in Naples!!!

CASTAGNACCIO (a chestnut cake)
Blend carefully the following ingredients:
500 grams of chestnut flour into 1 liter of water, 1 decaliter (scant ½ cup) virgin olive oil, 150 grams sugar, & pinch of salt. When it has a pliable consistency, pour into a buttered and floured cake tin,
Sprinkle crumbled rosemary on top and a generous handful of pinenuts, plus some raisin (soften in warm water if too dry and hard. Finally, drizzle olive oil on top.
Bake in a preheated 180 Farenheit oven for an hour. Test with a toothpick. If it does not come out clean, continue to bake a bit longer.
Eat while warm.
(The recipe comes from Lejla Mancusi Sorrentino, “Delizie degli orti di Napoli” (Naples: Grimaldi, 2009), p. 39

Becky tells me she has received chestnut flour from Anson Mills: