Castagnazzi – Traditional Chestnut Cakes Between the Antiquity and Today


Castagnaccio is a traditional Italian cake made with chestnut flour, more or less thin, with a few variants that depend on the regions in which it is prepared. Some kinds are prepared with just chestnut flour and water or adding milk and sugar, but there are more complex recipes that include rosemary, nuts, and raisins. Castagnacci fritti, instead, are fritters generally prepared with just flour and water, then fried in olive oil.
The origin of dishes similar to castagnaccio, however, is very old. Pliny, in the Naturalis Historia, mentions a sort of bread made with chestnut flour instead of cereals. If we mix this kind of flour with a liquid, the possible outcome are two: a polenta or a cake like castagnaccio. However, Pliny, writing that it is a chestnut bread, clearly means an ancestor of castagnaccio, the kind of dish you obtain if you bake a mixture of chestnut flour and water: otherwise, the author would use the words puls or polenta. Chestnut bread, in addition, has been the typical food of mountaineers in Italy for centuries: our woods, especially in the mountains, produce lots of chestnuts, and chestnut trees were grown there starting from millennia ago as a sort of permaculture. Chestnuts, and especially their flour, have been used for a long time as a cheap substitute of bread, as reported in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by Michele Savonarola (who calls them confetti da montanari, delicacies for mountaineers), Costanzo Felici and Giacomo Castelvetro.
Castagnaccio too, castagnazzo in the source we are using today, was a food for peasants, and even more, for mountaineers. We find it mentioned a few times in two popular Renaissance tales, Le sottilissime astutie di Bertoldo and Le piacevoli et ridicolose simplicità di Bertoldino written by Giulio Cesare Croce in the 16th century, in which we read the adventures of the shrewd peasant Bertoldo and the simpleton Bertoldino, his son, who in a passage eats 25 castagnazzi cooked by his mother Marcolfa. In addition, we find castagnazzi mentioned in a few 17th-century sources as a peasant food, sold in Bologna as a street food with others, such as pies (torte), ravioli, fritters, and eggs in a series of decrees issued by Cardinal Durazzo in 1642.
Bertoldino and Durazzo’s castagnazzi are probably similar to the castagnacci fritti mentioned above or to the ones we prepare today, which are fritters with cheese, honey, and flour. The author of this recipe, Vincenzo Tanara, who lived in the same places as Croce, the countryside of Bologna, recommends using Parmigiano or a tender and fat cheese. We used Parmigiano, but with a cheese like fresh caciotta we obtain a better outcome if we add honey, which is an optional ingredient. If you prefer savory fritters, you may omit honey at all.
The text of the recipe, taken from L’Economia del Cittadino in Villa, is ambiguous: it is unclear whether we must prepare a batter or a firmer mixture for the fritters. The term cola alludes to a batter, but the fact that the author writes to make the castagnazzi in the shape of fritters (fatti i castagnazzi in forma di fritella) seems, instead, to refer to the fact that they must have a specific shape, so the mixture needs to be firmer than a batter. There are many possible interpretations: try the one that inspires you more. Rosewater may be substituted with water or milk. The quantity of honey and cheese is up to your taste.
In our preparation, we added a cup of water to obtain a liquid batter, but if you want a firmer consistency, use more cheese and flour and just the needed quantity of rosewater.
If you do not have chestnut flour, simmer the chestnuts in water for at least 30 minutes, then peel them and break them coarsely. Then, dry them in the oven at low heat for 20 or 30 minutes. When they are completely dry, pound them in the mortar until you obtain the flour. If it is not very dry, this flour keeps for a short time, but you may use it immediately to prepare your castagnazzi.

For more historical recipes based on vegetables and herbs, check out our new book, Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers, which collects many recipes from the Antiquity to early Modern Era, accompanied by an introduction about vegetables in the history of Italian cooking in the cookbooks and their relationship with dietetic, philosophical, and religious practices. The book is available on Amazon in English and Italian, in e-book and printed editions.
On our Patreon page, you find several articles about historical food and translations of ancient and medieval sources.
If you want to know more about medieval cooking, check out Libro de la Cocina. Medieval Tuscan recipes, Registrum Coquine. A medieval cookbook, and De Observatione Ciborum, written in the 6th century by the physician Anthimus for the king of the Franks Theuderic.
For more information about ancient food, we recommend reading Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources.
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150 grams chestnut flour
100 grams chestnuts
100 grams Parmigiano
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 cup water

Grate the Parmigiano. Roast the chestnuts on charcoal for about half an hour. Peel and mince the chestnuts. Mix the flour and water, then add cheese, honey, chestnuts and rosewater. Fry the batter in butter, a ladle at a time, until the fritters are completely browned. Serve still hot.

Original text
Di farina si fanno castagnazzi in molti modi; delitioso è quello di misticar nella farina castagne, stemperate con acqua rosa, cacio parmigiano overo cacio nostrano grasso, tenero, poi fatti i castagnazzi in forma di fritella, si frigono nella padella con butiro. Nella cola di farina di castagne, qual si prepara per far castagnazzi, si può ponere miele pe’l gusto e sanità.

With the [chestnut] flour, many kinds of castagnazzi are made. It is delicious the one made by mixing chestnuts in the flour, diluted with rosewater, then Parmigiano cheese or fat and tender local [Bolognese] cheese. Once the fritters are prepared, they are fried in the pan with butter. In the chestnut-flour batter, prepared to make castagnazzi, one can add honey for its flavor and health’s sake.

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Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano. Medieval Tuscan Recipes
Early Italian Recipes. Vegetables, fruit, herbs, and flowers
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus. Early-medieval recipes at the court of the Franks.
Registrum Coquine by Johannes Bockenheim. A medieval cookbook
Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Sources, Recipes

Translations of Historical Sources
De Re Coquinaria by Apicius – books 1-9
De Observatione Ciborum by Anthimus (6th century)
Appendicula de Condituris Variis by Johannes Damascenus (8th-9th century)
De Flore Dietarum (11th century)
Tractatus de Modo Preparandi et Condiendi Omnia Cibaria (13th-14th century)
Opusculum de Saporibus by Mainus de Maineris (14th century)
Libro de la Cocina by Anonimo Toscano (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino – first and second part (15th century)

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