By Rachel Jane ZarrowAs a native English speaker living in Italy, I am always learning new things. Firstly, I am learning the Italian language. This makes me even more attentive to grammatical faux-pas in English (hence my insistence on properly using the not only/but also clauses correctly). Secondly, I am learning all about Italian cuisine (hence the subject matter of the aforementioned not only/but also statement) and one recent discovery has been castagne or chestnuts.[caption id="attachment_3283" align="aligncenter" width="258" caption="Roasting Chestnuts"]
[/caption]Before coming to Florence, I had never tried chestnuts. Although, like most other Americans, I know the beginning (and only the beginning) of euroThe Christmas SongeuroeuroeuroChestnuts roasting on an open fireeuro), I had never actually had the pleasure of tasting roasted chestnuts. Or any chestnuts for that matter.As the winter weather began to tease us a few weeks ago, I saw roasted chestnuts stands pop up all over the cityeuros center. As someone with a curious palate, I knew I had to try roasted chestnuts. As though reading my mind, my Italian host mother-- side note: I am a student living with an Italian familyeuroroasted chestnuts for us one night. As we sat on the couch, mia mamma recounted (in Italian of course) a story from her childhood: when it was cold, her grandmother would roast chestnuts for her and they would hold them in their hands as a way to warm up in the winter. At this moment in the story, she offered me my first chestnut and, as they say, it was love at first bite. I love the rich, nutty flavor and the soft, crumbly texture, somewhat reminiscent to boiled chickpeas. They are neither sweet nor salty, just simply magical.So, after this experience I began to join the masses crowding around the stalls of roasted chestnuts, finally able to understand the popularity of this snack food. And, as curious as ever, I began to notice (and obviously taste test) the other various forms of chestnuts that are available in Florence in the winter.[caption id="attachment_3285" align="aligncenter" width="548" caption="Castagnaccio"]
[/caption]Castagnaccio- This is a very flat and dense cake made from chestnut flour. I hesitate, however, to use the word cake, because it is so incredibly thin. It has a crisp edge with a moist, almost chewy interior. This cake is made from very few ingredients- chestnut flour, water, olive oil, pine nuts, raisins, and rosemary as garnish- and it does not have added sugar. Without sugar, the chestnut flour offers an almost sweet, nutty flavor. Mia mamma Italiana made this for me one night after I mentioned that I had before never tried it and, like perhaps gingerbread in the states, it very much tastes like a holiday dessert. Festive trays of castagnaccio can be found in many fornos or bread shops at this time of the year, as well as in most pasticcerie (bakeries).Marron glac- Another sweet treat that I had never tried before coming to Italy, the marron glac simply blew me away. It is simply a candied chestnut. The feeling of biting into a chewy, crystallized, candied chestnut is almost indescribable. For me it was like a dream come true, but for a dentist, it would probably be more like a nightmare! Again, to try to compare it to something in America, I would say that the texture falls somewhere between maple sugar candy and dried fruit. While the flavor of the chestnut itself is somewhat masked by the sugar, marron glacs still retain a taste that is unlike any other sweet treat. I tried one from La Pasticceria Robiglio, which has various locations in Florence.Castagnaccio Gelato- This inventive take on the classic chestnut desserts really rounds out a fire-and-ice tour of castagne in Italy. At Florenceeuros Simone Boninieuros gelateria, euroCarapina, euro I tried castagnaccio-flavored gelato. It has the same complex, earthy taste of the chestnut with a slightly more unique texture than other gelatos. If one isneurot feeling too cold for gelato, this gelato is a creative alternative to the other chestnut offerings available this time of year. (Note: Simone Bonini, the owner, only uses seasonal ingredients so make sure to try this right away!)While I still do not know the rest of the lyrics to euroThe Christmas Songeuro-- nor do I have intentions to learn them any time soon-- I now understand why the song begins with a tribute to this food. Now, I think that chestnuts deserve not only this recognition, but also an encore.