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
1 egg yolk
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).