Thursday, October 30, 2008


The grapes have been harvested and pressed. New wine is already creeping up in the cantinas and some of the stores, though the official debut of vino nuovo isn't until the feast of San Martino on November 11. Bryan has already taken his bottle to a local winery to have it filled up for an early taste; he enjoys the fruity, grapey flavor as a change from the norm. The olive harvest is getting underway.

Now that the vines are barren of fruit, the leaves are changing color. Driving along the country roads we noticed the vineyards are speckled in hues of yellow and red. I'd never realized that grapes, like trees, change color in the fall. Just never thought about it, I guess. It's a pretty sight, the ordered rows of autumnal tints.

But the clearest sign of fall is seen in the local sagre. The focus has shifted from summer fare and grilled goodies to heavier dishes like polenta and fall foods like mushrooms and truffles, foraged from the local mountains. The main event this time of year is the chestnut. They are being proffered from roadside stands, in the weekly mercato, and and the grocery store. Sagra events are focusing on the versatile humble nut.

I admit, I'm not a huge fan. It's a very starchy nut with a flavor reminiscent of a sweet potato. Unless it is fresh off the roasting pan, I can only eat a couple before I've had my fill. But Italian ingenuity brings the chestnut into play in many different ways. It can be dried and ground into flour (which makes a rather tasty sweet bread); it can be roasted and turned into a sweet paste that is used to fill sweet ravioli, usually in conjunction with cocoa (now we're getting closer to my taste!); and it can be used to make gnocchi (good with a gorgonzola sauce!) or polenta (not so yummy, though I've never tried it with gorgonzola, hmm). I also rather like me a helping of marron glace` when topped with a bit of whole-milk, honey-sweetened yogurt. The best marron glace` are the ones that have been carmelized in the sugar syrup and then soaked in booze.

Something I've noticed with the chestnut vendors is that they are careful to keep a distinction between castagne and marroni. My dictionary translates both simply as "chestnut" so just what is the difference, I've often wondered. Especially when marroni can cost quite a bit more. For the answer, I asked a grower/vendor at a sagra in Castignano, a town whose very name derives from chestnuts (castagno means chestnut tree). I figured if anyone knew the diffence it would be a Castignanese.

He kindly and patiently informed me that castagne are just your common chestnuts which grow wildly and naturally all over the place. Anyone can go into the woods and forage for these run of the mill babies. They grow three to a pod, encased together in their furry outer shell. Marroni, instead, are a cultivated hybrid...the Cadillac of chestnuts, if you will. The nut inside is shinier, sweeter and plumper than a common chestnut. They also peel out of their skin much more easily once they've been roasted.

So how can you tell the difference when they're piled up on the vendor's table? Simple, he said. The "white" of a marrone is elongated, narrow and oval, almost rectangular. The castagna has a rounder, darker-colored marking. Now we know.

I love autumn, and I like the change in food focus, too. Just when you start to tire of the summer fruits and "same old" veggies, the season brings a new harvest to enjoy and vibrant colors to behold. Viva autunno.


Beatriz Macias said...

Beautifully written. I also enjoy the change of harvest, if you will. We have 2 chestnut trees on our front yard, so we have grown fond of the silly little nut (our dog devours them). We also enjoy the vino nuovo.

janie said...

Thanks Valerie-very informative. I too can only eat a few of them right off the coals. I remember my grandmother roasting them when I was little and I've only done it myself once,

Mary said...

Oh, marron glace - now you're talking!

Valerie said...

Beatriz - Thanks! That's funny your dog likes chestnuts! We'll be going around next week to try a few of the vino nuovo while my sister is visiting.

Janie - Glad I'm not the only one ;) The only time I roasted them myself I didn't know to slit them with a knife. You can imagine what kind of fireworks went off inside the oven!

Mary - Aren't they yummy?