Chestnuts: a rare treat, and versatile too
Hanging by a thread off laden branches, chestnuts sparkle like dark jewels.
They look like huge, fat raindrops, and gleam with a perfect deep brown gloss against the golden spines of the half-open burrs that hold them.
Deep inside—wrapped securely in the shiny peel's firm cocoon, sheltered by what remains of the prickly burrs—the straw-yellow core is ripening, getting ready to yield its sweet, nutty flavour to the voracious embrace of a roasting pan.
Soon starch will turn into sugar and the chestnuts will start falling with muffled thuds on the mossy undergrowth that carpets woods from Piedmont to Umbria.
Europe's oldest living chestnut tree, which stands in Sicily, is reputed to be more than 3,000 years old.
It is so big that legend wants it to have given shelter to a medieval queen, Joan of Aragon, and her escort of 100 knights on a stormy evening. If the story is true, it was already there when the Romans, who were great fans of the plant, started planting chestnut trees along the length and breadth of the Mediterranean basin.
The sweet nuts were so popular that even the empire's greatest poets sung of them in their work—in the Eclogues, Virgil recalled a dainty dish of chestnuts cooked in milk and eaten with cheese, while Martial raved about the roast ones he had in Naples.
In some areas, such as the Tuscan Apennine, chestnuts were the main staple since Roman times and throughout the Middle Ages - chiefly because of their nourishing qualities, though their reputation as aphrodisiacs can't have hurt.
Also from TuscanyIUmbria comes castagnaccio, a thin, textured, nutty cake made with chestnut flour peppered with pine nuts and rosemary.
Even richer is Monte Bianco, a rum-drizzled mountain of chestnut puree and cocoa, covered by a snow-white blanket of whipped cream.
And of course there are chestnut-filled tortelli, chestnut flour fritters,and the velvety marmellata di marroni—a chestnut puree blended with syrup and cooked until it becomes a deliciously sweet cream.
The best places to savour the nuts, both in traditional and innovative recipes, are the areas of production.
Virtually every hill or mountain wood in Italy will have a chestnut grove - they cover some 15% of Italy's wooded surface—but the most acclaimed nuts come from Tuscany and Umbria, Piedmont and Campania.