As fall comes to Florence, the city begins to smell like roasted chestnuts. Stands appear on street corners, and locals love to buy a small bag for their passeggiata, the afternoon walk downtown. Although the prickly outer casing makes chestnuts hard to harvest, the hills around Florence are filled with chestnut trees, and many people have small chestnut groves as a cash crop. Chestnuts are sold whole for roasting or boiling (see instructions for roasting—and more—at theflr.net/hmhpif), and for grinding into flour, which is the base of the castagnaccio you see in bakeries this time of year and of necci, a popular Tuscan street food around Pistoia, Lucca and in the area of Tuscany that borders the Bolognese Apennines.
If you are going to roast chestnuts at home, make sure you use the special knife, coltello per castagne, to cut a slice into the soft shell before cooking (to avoid any exploding chestnuts). Once roasted, wrap them in a towel to steam. I was told to splash them with grappa before wrapping them in the towel; having tried it, I can tell you that it does give them a nice kick.
Likewise, in making boiled chestnuts, you can add a bay leaf to the cooking water. A personal favorite is chestnut jam made from boiled chestnuts: puree the boiled chestnuts and add sugar, water and a bit of vanilla.
Chestnuts are also ground into flour. The flour is sort of sweet (apparently during World War II a little taste of it was a treat for children), and in autumn, most bakeries in Tuscany use chestnut flour to make a flat cake called castagnaccio, with pine nuts, walnuts, raisins and rosemary. My local bar in Certaldo makes an even richer version, with lots of nuts and a brown sugar dusting on top. Tuscans adore castagnaccio, but I have a hard time loving it, perhaps because I once made the mistake of thinking it was a chocolate dessert and was surprised at the flavor. Ironically, when I worked at one of Florence’s vegetarian restaurants as a pastry chef, my castagnaccio was said to be fabulous. I substituted milk for the water in the recipe, which I think makes the flavor less shocking.
Chestnut flour is the base of necci, which has its origins in cucina povera (simple country cooking). Made with chestnut flour, water, a pinch of salt and some olive oil, necci are simple crêpes cooked on cast iron disks and served topped with sheep’s milk ricotta.
I first tasted necci at the monthly market in piazza Santo Spirito, where an elderly couple from the Pistoia mountains had a tiny stand and made the necci with traditional iron griddles, one on top of the other, flipping the pans over the flame until the batter inside was cooked. They served the hot necci with their own fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.
I find it very hard to replicate street necci at home, however, and have created the version I offer here, which, with eggs and milk, is more like an American pancake.
Necci (makes 6 pancakes)
100 grams chestnut flour / 1 large egg / 250ml fresh milk / drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil / pinch of salt / 1 soup spoon of granulated sugar (castor sugar)
Put the flour in a large bowl and make a crater in the center. Place in the crater the egg, milk, olive oil, salt and sugar. Slowly whisk the ingredients until there are no lumps in the batter. Preheat a nonstick skillet or a crêpe pan; grease well. Using a ladle, make the pancakes one at a time. Serve warm, topped with ricotta cheese and drizzled with honey. (Chestnut honey is my favorite.)