It is close to the time of year when you can shortly start to see small columns of white smoke coming out of various place in the chestnuts wood surrounding Barga. Once upon a time you would have seen many of the mysterious looking signs of life in otherwise deserted forests – the smoke in fact not coming from the hearth or stove of a house but instead from the metati – the small barns used to dry the chestnuts. These days there are very few and far between working Metato still in operation but they can be easily spotted by that plume of white smoke as the fires are lit to dry out their precious chestnuts.
Once the chestnuts are dried they are then taken to the mills to be ground down into the chestnut flour that is so important for local dishes in this area.
In Toscana ciò avveniva nel metato, una costruzione rustica eretta nel luogo di raccolta delle castagne. Talvolta, come sull’Appennino Pistoiese e in Garfagnana, il metato era parte integrante dell’abitazione: sostituiva la cucina ed era luogo di incontro, in quanto vi si tenevano le veglie. Le castagne erano poste a seccare sul canniccio o sulle cannaiole, cioè su una impalcatura costituita da assi di legno ravvicinate o da canne a cui il focolare della cucina assicurava un calore costante. Pascoli ricorda un: “metato soletto in cui seccasse a un fuoco dolce il dolce pan di legno: sopra le cannaiole le castagne cricchian, e il rosso fuoco arde nel buio.” (Il ciocco dai Canti di Castelvecchio,) Una volta seccate, le castagne venivano sgusciate con una energica battitura che triturava i gusci dentro robusti sacchi o in un apposito recipiente detto bigoncia. Oggi questi procedimenti sono stati sostituiti dall’uso di macchine sgusciatrici. Anche i metati sono quasi del tutto scomparsi, trasformati spesso in stanze di abitazione o in ripostigli per gli attrezzi. – Margherita Azzari
The sweet chestnut flour is notorious for being difficult to keep for long periods – a certain moth being the most prevalent culprit – turning a bag of precious flour in a horrible biological experiment in a matter of days and so its time to use up last seasons flour before the immanent arrival of the new.
This afternoon I tried my hand at one of the most easiest and tastiest dishes from Garfagnana and Barga – Castagnaccio The classic sweet dish from this area made from chestnut flour
I sifted 250 g of chestnut flour (good quality chestnut flour from one of the local mills at Fosciandora in Garfagnana) into a large bowl with a good pinch of salt and slowly added 200 ml of water and 200 ml of milk – the added milk does change the taste and the colour of the final castagnaccio .. (the original recipe would have been just 400 ml of water)
I stirred the mix until it was a good liquid batter.
I preheated the oven to 180° and prepared with butter the inside of a large flat oven dish.
I poured the mixture into the dish and sprinkled on top, a good couple of handful of walnuts, some pine nuts, sliced orange rinds* and a few springs of rosemary.
A couple of teaspoons of olive oil sprinkled across the top and into the oven for 40 minutes.
Cut into slices and hey presto in less than 40 minutes from start to finish – Castagniaccio.
250 g of chestnut flour
200 ml of water
200ml of milk
sliced orange peel
* Ok so I cheated a bit with the sliced orange peel. To add just that extra hit of sweetness, I heated them briefly in a small pan in some of the juice of the orange and added two small spoons of sugar to caramelise them. Naughty I know.