Mondine, roast chestnuts, music and the smell of cooking sausages on an open fire this weekend at the unofficial cultural centre of Barga -Aristo’s bar in Barga Vecchia.
The regulars of Aristo’s bar in Barga Vecchia during the autumn months sit outside the bar in the piazza and roast chestnuts 2 or 3 times a year. It is a time for all the families to get together and join in preparing the nuts and fire, and then roasting and eating the chestnuts around the flames to the sound of music supplied by four members of The Aristodemo’s.
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”
So just what are Mondine ?
Mondine are made by roasting chestnuts in a special steel pan, shaped like a deep sided frying pan with holes in the bottom. The chestnut are first castrate (castrated) by having a small incision made with a knife cut into them, removing a small portion of the skin so that the chestnuts do not explode in the heat of the fire. They are then placed in a pan which is held over an open fire.
The pan has a long handle, about a metre long allowing a good distance from the fire. As the skin on the chestnuts closest to the bottom of the pan becomes burned the chestnuts are flipped over allowing the ones on top to become cooked. This process is repeated until all the skins are crisp and practically burnt off.
Depending on which tradition is followed, a small glass of red wine is also tipped onto the chestnuts before a final roasting on the open flames. The chestnuts are then either tipped onto a table or sometimes into a hessian sack which is agitated between two people until the remaining skins on the chestnuts have been removed.
These are the mondine and they are now ready to eat.