There is smoke on every hillside, puffs of white rising between thick groves of chestnut trees. It could be viewed as celebratory bonfires after a successful chestnut hunt, or simply a way to clean up the spiny burrs that housed this flavorsome nut. These burrs grow in clusters on the tree; their spiny husks used to protect the chestnut inside. Once mature, the burrs will open and fall to the ground and the race of harvest ensues in order to beat squirrels, other animals and weather to the grounded nuts. Once the burrs are discarded, they are piled together and burned so that for the next year the new nuts are easy to spot on the forest floor.
Seggiano is situated beside Monte (mountain) Amiata, a dormant volcana, which provides the land with rich mineral deposits and beauty throughout every season. The chestnut trees that grow here are so bountiful and treasured that they have been given an IGP status in Italy – a title reserved for only the best produce grown in the country.
So, as smoke rises from the mountain, the surrounding villages celebrate with chestnut festivals in the streets: chestnuts roasting on open fires (literally), maron de glace in the shops (candied chestnuts that I just can’t. stop. eating.) and castagnaccio.
Castagnaccio, my Italian cooking class may remember, is a chestnut flour cake that is a speciality of this Monte Amiata region. Chestnuts were the staple food for Tuscan peasants and chestnut flour became widely used in cakes, breads and pastas as traditional flour was too expensive. This cake turns out weirdly flat and breadlike – in fact, in Italian the name literally means, “chestnut shit” or “chestnut mess”. The name is deceiving, as the flavor is subtly savory with a sweetness from the chestnuts and raisins and floral notes from the rosemary and pine nuts scattered on the top. Serve in the morning with a cappaccino or in the evening with a sweet glass of Grappa.
- 3 3/4cups (400 grams) chestnut flour
- 50g brown sugar
- Finely grated zest of one orange
- A pinch of salt
- 2 1/2cups (625 milliliters) cold water
- 100ml olive oil
- 1/2cup (100 grams) golden raisins
- 1/4cup (20 grams) walnut pieces
- 1/4cup (35 grams) pine nuts
- Sprig of fresh rosemary, leaves picked
Soak the sultanas in a little freshly boiled water (or hot tea) for about 10 minutes, so they plump up, while you prepare everything else.
Preheat the oven to 350. Brush a 22–23cm springform cake tin with some of the oil and line the base with baking parchment.
Drain the sultanas over a measuring jug to catch the soaking liquid, then make up the liquid to 400ml with cold water.
Sift the flour, sugar and salt into a large bowl. Add the orange zest, then gradually beat in the 400ml water until you have a smooth batter. Beat in the olive oil and sultanas.
Scrape the mixture into the prepared tin, then scatter over the pine nuts – patting them in slightly with your hand so they adhere – and rosemary. Bake for 45 minutes. The cake will look very similar to how it did when it went into the oven but the top should be dry and slightly cracked in places and a skewer inserted into the centre should come out clean.
Remove the side of the tin and leave the cake to cool on the base on a wire rack. Peel away the lining paper as you transfer the cake to a board to cut into slices.
Serve the cake just warm, or completely cooled, trickling each slice with honey and a little extra virgin oil.