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Chestnut Eating 21/04/2011

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c. 1910

The taste for chestnuts here is very strong, and these, prepared in many different ways, form today no small part of the sustenance of the people. At the street corners in winter the chestnut stalls spread the ruddy glow of their fires, and the tempting odour of their hot ware: the arrostite that perfume the air around. Often you will see the passer-by become the purchaser; the quilted cover is lifted, the handful of hot chestnuts measured, and the buyer moves on, munching cheerfully what has already served to warm his frost-bitten hands.

These stalls are picturesque but peripatetic; they lead up to the regular shop in this kind, which stands open in the poorer streets, and caters for their inhabitants on a larger scale and with more variety. Here are not only roast chestnuts, but chestnuts boiled, with just that spice of fennel in the water which meets the Florentine taste, and tempers the natural quality of this somewhat heavy food. The bollite lie here in the huge coppers that have served to cook them, and on a wooden board stands the ereat round polenda, smoking hot. This, too, is made of chestnut flour, and must be very popular, to judge by the rate at which it disappears as the string cuts into its chocolate-coloured mass, and it goes off slice by slice: a cheap and comforting morsel in cold days.

There is the castagnaccio, too, also made of chestnut flour, but prepared differently, and in its way a triumph of the art. For it a large round copper tray with a shallow border is used. This is oiled, filled with a wide thin cake of dough sprinkled with pine nuts, and set to cook over the fire. The copper retains the heat well, and when the cooking is done many a cake of castagnaccio is sent in its tray to the bridges, where, as you cross theArno, you may see it sold at a half-penny a slice.

There was – is still – a dark shop under the arch of San Piero, as you come into the market from the Via dell’ Oriuolo, which had a great reputation for this dainty, nor is it so long since an authentic count and countess might be seen eating castagnaccio in the streets as they walked; people of such ancient descent and acknowledged position that they could laugh at the prejudices of their class as they followed the old Florentine habit.

It may be added that most of the buzzurri, as the chestnut sellers are called here, come from the Italian foothills of the Alps: a sign of the strong demand at Florence for their art and wares. chestnuts of its own. These fine trees are common in the hills above Pistoia, where their fruit is anxiously expected and gathered as the principal harvest of the year, and where the hill people depend chiefly on chestnuts still as their main sustenance. The form this food takes with them is, in the main, the same polcuda dolcc we have already met at Florence, but instead of the broad, rich Florentine castagnaccio they have the necci, smaller cakes of the same kind.

Here, in the cooking of the necci, a further survival may be seen, and one that seems to make our whole contention plain. Each kitchen in the hills has by the jamb of its great fireplace a pile of flat round stones laid one on top of the other. These are heated betimes in the fire, and then, when the chestnut dough has been mixed, and the pine nuts added, and the whole formed into thin round cakes, a hot stone by the fire forms the foundation on which a cake, wrapped in chestnut leaves, is laid. This is covered by another hot stone, and so on till the pile is built complete, of cakes and stones alternately. Thus, as will be seen, the chestnut and the pine furnish the whole material of this food, and the cooking, being done by hot stones applied to the cakes in this ingenious way, is primitive too; only to be paralleled by savage ways of baking and boiling, which, if used today, are yet known as a direct inheritance from the earliest times. Not only the continued use of the chestnut then, but the manner of its preparation as food in the wilder hills, suggest strongly that the present inhabitants of the Val d’Arno are the direct descendants of the first woodmen in this valley.

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