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 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