It’s Chestnut season!
As you probably know, at the weekend I visited the Festa del Marrone di Caprese in Tuscany. While I was there I bought a couple of kilos of chestnuts and some freshly milled chestnut flour. Look what I got up to and try it yourself.
Marroni di Caprese DOP
Caprese chestnuts—which since 2009 have their own DOP or protected status—are among the sweetest chestnuts I have ever eaten. If you’ve ever cut into a chestnut you will know that there is a grey fluffy layer between the shell and the fruit, which is coated in a brown, papery casing. Although you can remove the shells quite easily from Caprese chestnuts, you need to boil them to remove the rest.
To peel chestnuts I use the following method. Firstly, I cut a small cross through the skin on the flat side of the chestnut. This is normally the hardest side of the chestnut to peel and so I find it best to start there. Then I put them in a pan of boiling water for ten minutes. Once fished out, I wait a minute or so until they can be handled and then peel the outer skin off. The cross will have opened up during boiling and you will find it’s quite easy to remove the skins by pulling on the broken skin. Then I rub the chestnut with my thumb and the inner skin will come off easily. If it doesn’t, I pop it back into the water for a couple of minutes and then it does. Once boiled and peeled, Caprese chestnuts are a beautiful yellow colour and good to eat.
There are many recipes from the Tuscan Upper Tiber Valley (where Caprese is located) which use chestnut flour. Principal among them is Baldino, known in other parts of Tuscany as Castagnaccio, a sweet cake flavoured with pine nuts, raisins, and rosemary. Yes, you read that right: rosemary. Rosemary is not one of my favourite flavours at the best of times, so sadly for me, Baldino is to be avoided. Many other people attest to its quality, however.
Chestnut flour pasta
I love to make fresh pasta from chestnut flour. It’s a little more difficult to handle than usual egg pasta since the flour is a lot lower in glutens than the traditional flours used for pasta. For this reason, I usually mix it with semolina flour (semola di grano duro), which is high in gluten. I find a 1:2 ratio works well. You also have to knead the dough a little longer than usual to activate the glutens, but twenty minutes will suffice. You will notice that the chestnut flour gives the pasta a rich brown colour. Perfect for the autumn table.
Although you can make beautiful stuffed pasta with chestnut flour, one of my favourites is tagliatelle. You have to make them a little thicker than usual. I usually go to number 8 (the penultimate setting) on my pasta machine when making tagliatelle. With chestnut pasta I only go as far as 6. After that, I dust them in semolina flour and allow them to dry for about twenty minutes before cooking. They cook very quickly indeed. Once dropped into the boiling, salted water, they will rise to the top almost immediately and are ready one minute later. I like my pasta al dente but be careful because after two minutes they will be overcooked (scotte).
I serve these tagliatelle with a simple sauce made of the fresh chestnuts and other ingredients local to Caprese, walnuts and porcini mushrooms. If you can’t find fresh porcini mushrooms where you are, you can use dried ones that have been soaked in water to soften them. Failing that, portobello mushrooms also work very well. Tied together with a little cream, this sauce tastes of the forest floor. If I make this dish away from Tuscany, it always gives me the impression that I am back in Caprese, surrounded by wild boar hiding in the chestnut forests.
If you want to make the tagliatelle in advance, once dried, you can put them in a plastic bag and freeze them. You can cook them straight from frozen and they will take about thirty seconds longer.
What’s your favourite way to eat chestnuts? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.
For the pasta:
140g (1 1/4 cups) chestnut flour
260g (2 1/2 cups) semolina flour
For the sauce:
30g (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
50g (1/2 cup) walnuts
3 porcini mushrooms
125ml (1/2 cup) cream
125ml (1/2 cup) water
Make the pasta:
- Sift the flours together in a large bowl. Make a hole in the centre and pour in the beaten eggs.
- Use a fork to mix the eggs into the flour. When they are all mixed in, bring the mixture together into a dough using your hands.
- Turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead until you have a nice smooth dough, about twenty minutes.
- Wrap in cling film and place in the fridge for at least half an hour.
- Roll out the dough using a pasta machine and cut into tagliatelle. Allow them to dry for at least twenty minutes before cooking.
Make the sauce:
- Melt the butter in a large frying pan or skillet together with the extra virgin olive oil.
- Chop the chestnuts into small pieces and add to the pan. Cook until they begin to go golden brown, about two minutes.
- Add the walnuts, and continue to cook for another two minutes.
- Cut the mushrooms into small pieces and add them to the pan. Season with a little salt and continue to cook for a further two minutes.
- Add the cream and the water. Simmer gently for about ten minutes. If it gets too dry, then keep adding a couple of tablespoons of water until the ten minutes have elapsed. Check seasoning and add a little more salt if necessary.
Cook the pasta:
- Bring four litres (8 1/2 pints) of water to the boil with 40g (8 teaspoons) rock salt.
- When the water is boiling well, add the pasta. As soon as it rises to the top, cook for one minute. Reserve some of the cooking water and drain the pasta immediately.
- Add the pasta to the frying pan containing the sauce and mix well. If necessary, add a little of the reserved cooking water to help the sauce coat the pasta but it should not be wet.
- Serve topped with a little grated parmigiano reggiano and black pepper.