Scents and sen­si­bil­i­ties

The aroma of roast­ing chest­nuts arouses happy mem­o­ries of a child­hood in Italy’s Um­bria Once Nonna tugged on her short boots we’d know we were go­ing some­where spe­cial

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - The Global Gourmet Issue - PA­TRIZIA SI­MONE

THE de­li­cious smell of cal­dar­roste (roasted chest­nuts) waft­ing through the borgo sig­nalled that sum­mer was over and au­tumn had ar­rived. We’d have chest­nuts in the morn­ing, at lunch, at school and at night. We roasted them among the ashes on the warm flag­stones of our huge fire­place, then wrapped the blis­tered nuts in an old jumper to steam a lit­tle.

To kill the time, we’d pass the warm par­cel, im­pa­tiently breath­ing in its burned per­fume.

I al­ways knew when Nonna was plan­ning an ex­cur­sion to col­lect chest­nuts in the wild: she’d swap the thick jumper she usu­ally wore un­der her sleeve­less dress for a shirt, and knot her black scarf at the back to re­veal a lit­tle of her grey hair in­stead of cov­er­ing it com­pletely. It took me years to re­alise that Nonna’s wardrobe was purely func­tional; a dress with sleeves would have re­stricted her in her work, as would hair in her eyes.

The thick apron she al­ways wore had deep pock­ets for her uten­sils and a few spe­cial treats for us chil­dren, per­haps mos­cia­relle (dried chest­nuts that we sucked like sweets), sul­tanas from the cantina or aniseed bis­cuits. She al­ways tied her apron in a bow at the back, with one rib­bon longer than the other — we liked to pull it loose when she least ex­pected it. Nonna would al­ways share the joke, chas­ing us and hug­ging us when she caught us. I loved her smell — soap, grass, fruit and of­ten onion or gar­lic. The love and warmth ex­uded by her sturdy clothes made [my brother] Fausto and me feel so safe and happy.

Once Nonna tugged on her short boots we’d know we were go­ing some­where spe­cial, and in au­tumn that could mean only one thing — to visit Zio Lu­ciano and Zio Ar­mando, her younger brothers, at Resina, near Solfag­nano. It was only a few kilo­me­tres away, but far enough in those sim­pler times that the chances for Nonna to visit the area of her birth were rare.

We’d set out early, to ar­rive just af­ter my small, softly spo­ken un­cles had fin­ished tend­ing their an­i­mals. With sa­lumi and bread packed, Zio Lu­ciano would take us through the steep, sunny fields be­hind the house up into the woods — a thick stand of pines, oaks, maples, wal­nuts and the oc­ca­sional ch­est­nut. Puff­ing with ef­fort, we’d be re­lieved to find our­selves out of the sun and walking in­stead through crack­ling leaves and over damp earth in shady si­lence, breath­ing in the musti­ness of de­cay.

Th­ese woods were myun­cles’ cantina, pro­vid­ing fuel to warm their house and fire their oven, and food for the ta­ble: chest­nuts, wal­nuts, mush­rooms, wild fruit, berries, quail, pheas­ant, hare and wild boar.

Deep in the woods, the trees sud­denly opened up and we’d reach what seemed like a pi­azza, with an old, straight black trunk reach­ing for the sun at its cen­tre. This was the ch­est­nut we had come to see. A car­pet of red­dish brown, spiky ricci (husks, lit­er­ally ‘‘hedge­hogs’’) cov­ered the ground, and now and then a ch­est­nut, re­leased from above, spi­ralled with a muf­fled thump into the leaf lit­ter. From within the split ricci winked a shiny brown eye.

We were off — let loose to for­age for the shiny nuts among the spiky husks or squash the ricci with our heels to re­lease the nuts still trapped within. As my un­cles raked and the hes­sian sacks bulged, our laugh­ter and chat­ter filled the air, obliv­i­ous as we were to our pricked fin­gers and sore backs. Our mouths wa­tered as we won­dered what we’d soon be eat­ing: per­haps chest­nuts cooked with pancetta, crostate with syrupy ch­est­nut jam or ch­est­nut frit­ters, drenched with sugar or driz­zled with honey.

Weal­ways cel­e­brated with lunch un­der a huge oak near the old stone farm­house. Zio Lu­ciano would tend the fire un­til the glow­ing coals were ready for the padella, a pan with holes in its base used for roast­ing chest­nuts. While the chest­nuts cooked, we’d melt lit­tle pieces of cheese on a pad­dle and bring out bread and wine from the re­cent vin­tage. The high­light was al­ways Zia Italia’s ch­est­nut tagli­atelle served with wild boar ragu. While the chest­nuts were plen­ti­ful we’d en­joy th­ese treats for as long as we could, un­til the next au­tumn.

Late in the af­ter­noon, we’d load our har­vest into our lit­tle three-wheeled van. Tired and happy, Fausto and I would snug­gle be­tween Nonna and Babbo for the ride home along the nar­row roads that wound down through the val­ley.

The next day, if the weather was kind to us, we would set out the nuts to dry on wooden planks on the ter­race or oth­er­wise in front of the fire in the kitchen. And that would mean win­ter mine­strone, with its sweet dumplings, and flour for ch­est­nut cake.

Th­ese days we go with friends into the or­chards around Bright in Vic­to­ria to pick and roast chest­nuts, and ev­ery time we’re in Italy in au­tumn, my fam­ily or­gan­ises a pic­nic on the moun­tain to do the same.

The joy of shar­ing food and wine with friends is now rea­son enough to cel­e­brate each ch­est­nut sea­son, but I’m ever aware that this rit­ual was born of ne­ces­sity, and I’m hum­bled by how hard my fam­ily worked and how much they val­ued and re­lied on na­ture’s bounty.

Now, as we sit by the fire and look out over the glo­ri­ous Ovens Val­ley, I raise that fra­grant par­cel to my nose, re­mem­ber the se­cu­rity of Nonna’s apron, and salute the re­source­ful­ness of a woman who lived by na­ture, proud to be able to feed her loved ones well. This is an edited ex­tract from My Um­brian Kitchen by Pa­trizia Si­mone and Caro­line Pizzey (Lantern, $59.99).

above The au­thor, right, rem­i­nisces in Italy

top right Chest­nuts siz­zling in the pan bot­tom right Tra­di­tional cakes left The es­sen­tial padella pan

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Australia

© PressReader. All rights reserved.