Some serious contestants in the first Castagnaccio contest held at Aristo’s in Barga Vecchia. People have been bringing Castagnaccio – the classic sweet dish from this area made from chestnut flour, into the bar for some time. We have published a few articles about this phenomenon but for the first time this weekend they have brought them in all at the same time to be judged by the public in a blind competition. No names just numbers. People then voted on which of the Castagnaccio, they thought was the best. Natale Bertolini, the maestro of all things chestnut, was there with his famous Castagnaccio which he has been producing from his oven for the past half a century but also closing the gap were his two sons – Ayala and Marco. Ayala is no mean Castagnaccio maker (he has after all his father to give him some of the best tips) but his younger brother Marco is also gradually making a huge name for himself as one of the chefs in the Pasticceria Lucchesi (article here)
So added to the three Bertolini plates of castagnaccio there were also two more from some serious contestants – Elena, who brings her castagnaccio to almost every event at Aristo’s and is highly thought of and a newcomer to bar, no other than the chef, Tanica who brought in a plate with a great presentation – flaming castagnaccio no less.
Just to add to the mix, an outsider to the event, Cinzia Lenzarini brought in her offering made with chestnut flour from Garfagnana but as she was not on the official list she could not be voted on, maybe in the next event as her castagnaccio brought many positive comments.
As the musicians played, the votes were counted and the final winner announced.
It came as no surprise to anybody in the bar when it was announced that Natale Bertolini took this year’s award for the best Castagnaccio 2011.
The humble sweet chestnut has been an important ingredient in the Mediterranean diet – Homer mentions them, and Pliny even says which kinds were grown in Southern Italy. With time their cultivation spread throughout the peninsula, because they were one of the few food crops that could be grown on steep mountain slopes, and also one of the few crops that could be expected to provide sustenance through the long winter months.
By the middle ages castagne were the staple food of the peasants in large parts of Italy. In this area it has been the saviour of many people who otherwise would have starved when times got really bad and the sweet chestnut flour is still known to this day in Garfagnana as “poor mans flour”
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.