Chestnuts, Pliny writes, originate from Sardis, in Lydia. The best way to prepare them is roasted, but women, during the days of religious fast, substitute bread milling a flour made with this fruit. Other authors describe different preparations. Martial mentions that at Naples people use to steam them at low heat; the physician Gargilius Martial writes about cooking them in ash or in a terracotta vessel.
The recipe we selected today from De Re Coquinaria is more complex than these basic methods, survived throughout two millennia. This is the only preparation of chestnut in the cookbook attributed to Apicius. As always, the author is able, thanks to his extraordinary culinary vision, to turn simple and common ingredients into a refined dish, suited for the richest tables.
As Apicius recommends, for a good outcome it is fundamental tasting the course to adjust the quantities in the case they are not well balanced. Preparing these mashed chestnuts, we noticed that it is not easy to reach the perfect harmony of the aromas, between sweet and salty, sour and spiced, but the final result is worth the effort.
Below, you will find a note about the ingredients and the original text with the English translation. Enjoy!
white wine vinegar
extra virgin olive oil
spices (asafoetida, black pepper, cumin and coriander seeds)
aromatic herbs (rue, mint, pennyroyal)
Make an incision on one side of the skin of the chestnuts, then simmer them in water for a couple of minutes. Drain the water and place them in a hot pan. When they start to open, peel them.
Boil the peeled chestnuts for about half an hour adding a pinch of saltpeter, until they are completely cooked.
In the meantime, grind pepper, cumin, and coriander in the mortar, adding a little grated asafoetida.
Mince the aromatic herbs and pound them in the mortar with the spices, mixing with a little quantity of garum, honey, vinegar, and oil.
When the chestnuts are cooked, drain the water and add the sauce, mashing coarsely the chestnuts.
Plate the mashed chestnuts pouring a little olive oil.
Note about the ingredients
Rue and mint were the most common herbs in ancient Roman cuisine. Rue and pennyroyal grow wild in many Italian regions, where are still used to prepare traditional food and beverage (for example, grappa aromatized with rue), but they can be difficult to buy. We grow a few plants in our aromatic garden. If you do not find them, you can use just mint or other fresh herbs.
For this recipe, we used mint and pennyroyal picked and dried this summer. You can use both fresh and dry herbs. Drying was the most common way to keep aromatic herbs, but Romans preserved them also in brine and vinegar, washing the herbs with wine or water and adding olive oil before using them, as Columella reports.
Saltpeter was mainly used to preserve foods, in the same way as we do today. Apicius adds this ingredient in a few recipes, for example, to prepare oxyporum.
Garum was an ancient Mediterranean sauce prepared with fermented fish and salt, sometimes adding spices and aromatic herbs. Thanks to the ancient sources survived, we know that the simplest recipes of garum were identical to the methods used still today in South-East Asian countries to prepare their traditional fish sauces. If you do not have garum, you can use a fish sauce; otherwise, the best substitute is salt.
Asafoetida, called laser Parthicum, was one of the two used varieties of silphium, a spice widely used by the ancient Mediterranean populations, most of all, Greeks. While the most appreciated kind of silphium, called laser Cyrenaicum, seems to have been disappeared in the first centuries of the Common Era, asafoetida is still used in many Eastern countries. Apicius uses here the root of laser. We substituted it with the resin.
For this recipe, it is mandatory using excellent extra virgin olive oil (oleum viridis), as Apicius specifies, while he does not write what kind of pepper to use. Thanks to Pliny, we know that black, white, and long pepper are available at Rome, as a consequence, you can choose the variety you prefer.
Lenticulam de castaneis: accipies caccabum novum, et castaneas purgatas diligenter mittis. Adicies aquam et nitrum modice, facies ut coquatur. Cum coquitur, mittis in mortario piper, cuminum, semen coriandri, mentam, rutam, laseris radicem, puleium, fricabis. Suffundis acetum, mel, liquamen, aceto temperabis, et super castaneas coctas refundis. Adicies oleum, facies ut ferveat. Cum bene ferbuerit, tudiclabis. Gustas: si quid deest, addes. Cum in boletar miseris, addes oleum viride.
Chestnut lenticula [a kind of dish]: take a new caccabum [a kind of cooking vessel] and place there chestnuts carefully shelled. Add water and a little saltpeter, and cook them. While they are cooking, pound in the mortar pepper, cumin, coriander seeds, mint, rue, root of laser, pennyroyal. Add vinegar, honey, garum, dilute with vinegar [the repetition here is unclear], and pour on the cooked chestnuts with oil, making the sauce boil. When it boils well, mash [the chestnuts]. Taste the dish: if something is missing [ie: if the flavors are not well balanced], add it. Plate the chestnuts in a boletar, pouring extra virgin olive oil.
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