By Letizia Mattiacci
call it "the wet eye." It's that glassy look you get when you wax lyrical about a favorite food. Even a tear might sneak out. Italians get the eye in describing (and tasting) their mom's lasagna. Or tortellini. Or eggplant parmigiana.
Surprisingly, they also get it with roasted chestnuts, castagne arrostite in Italian.
Not high on the list of maternal recipes? How shocking. A simple, almost plain treat, no clever technique necessary? Even more shocking.
But making and eating roasted chestnuts is a ritual that conjures up a mood of its own. It's about the food, yes, but also about a circle of good friends gathered togethed and cracking jokes around an open fire on fall evenings with the sweet aroma of chestnuts wafting in the air.
Chestnuts are as old as many civilizations, with Homer, Hippocrates, Virgil, and Pliny the Elder each praising them in pre-Christian writings in Virgil's bucolic "Eclogues," one traveler tells another "we have ripe apples, soft chestnuts, and a wealth of firm cheeses"; Pliny, meanwhile, raves about their taste when toasted.
It's the simplicity of chestnuts that makes them a perfect excuse to wile away the night.
Ideally, chestnuts should be slowly roasted over a wood fire. Urban Italians make do with a gas stove and the perforated skillet, which appears in just about all markets at the end of October. If you don't have one (or a suitable substitute) you can always roast them in the oven, but it's less fun.
Fresh Chestnuts (Ingredients and preparation)
Fresh chestnuts, calculate at least 5 or 6 per person.
Give yourself time, invite friends, and make sure there's lots of red wine on hand.
You'll also need a sharp knife.
Now then, be sure to get started a good hour or so before you intend to serve them, preferably while you're still sober. Remember, you have to use that sharp knife.
Ά Score the chestnuts, making a cross shaped cut across the "belly" of the fruit. You need to score the shell not the flesh all the way through. If you don't, they'll explode, quite spectacularly, while cooking.
Ά Put the chestnuts on a single layer in a chestnut pan and transfer them onto hot coals, a BBQ or a stovetop. You need very low heat so use a heat diffuser if necessary. Cover them with a wet paper bag like the ones used for tamp down bread.
Now, let them cook and start passing around the wine. If you're having a light dinner, remember that chestnuts can be filling.
They'll be ready in between 45 minutes to an hour, depending on size and freshness of the fruit. Fight off any temptation to increase the heat. If you do, they'll burn on the outside but remain waxy and indigestible inside.
Ά Shake the pan every 6 or 7 minutes to ensure they're cooked evenly. If the paper bag dries, run it under cold water to get it damp again.
The chestnuts are done when the shells curl back and the inner skins peels away easily. Taste one to be sure.
Now wrap the nuts in a towel to keep them warm. Pass around napkins (and more wine).
Enjoy, munch, relax, and repeat such evenings throughout winter.
The author's Sicilian mother worked to prove her dignity in a time when most Italian women stayed at home.
Italy's best oranges come from Sicily, and until recently the northward trek was rare.
For those who can't stand big-store Christmas shopping, try the artisanal alternative and then make cookies.
Even when things arent going your way (never mind Umbrian sunsets) there are always pumpkins.
When Google the Dog gets a whiff of figs, there's no more peace in the hills of Umbria.
More In Provincia