Castagnazzi – Traditional Chestnut Cakes Between the Antiquity and Today

Italiano

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.

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For more information about ancient food, we recommend reading Ancient Roman Cooking. Ingredients, Recipes, Sources.
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Ingredients
150 grams chestnut flour
100 grams chestnuts
100 grams Parmigiano
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon rosewater
1 cup water
butter

Method
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.

Translation
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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Books
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 1-8
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)
Anonimo Toscano (14th century)
Anonimo Veneziano (14th century)
Registrum Coquine by Johannes von Bockenheim (15th century)
Libro de Arte Coquinaria by Maestro Martino – first part (15th century)

Recipes
Renaissance Fried Tomatoes
Herbolata
The diet of the Franks – Beef Stew
Fried Chicken Soup
Sage fritters
Beef Roast with Garlic Sauce
Bread Soup
Salted Meat and Peas
Baghdadi Rice Cream
Chicken with White-Pepper Sauce – Piperatum Album
Indian Chickpeas and Meat
The Diet of the Franks – Pork Stew
Chestnut and Mushrooms
Lentils with Oregano and Watermint
Egyptian Bread with Pistachios and Almonds
Veal with Fennel-Flower Sauce
Pork Roast with Green Sauce
Eggs Poached in Wine
Brodium Theutonicum
Crispellae – Pancakes with Saffron and Honey
Brodium Sarracenium – Chicken Stew
Fava Beans and Pork
Erbe Minute – Meatballs with Herbs
Lettuce and Pork Soup
Zanzarelli – Egg and Cheese Soup
Turnip and Beef Soup for Servants
Cheese Pasta – Vivanda Bona
Gratonata – Chicken Stew
Chickpea Soup with Poached Eggs
Apple Fritters
Hippocras and Claretum – Mulled Wine
Pastero – Pork Pie
10th-century Goat Roast – A Langobard at the Court of the Byzantine Emperor
Romania – A Recipe Between Arabic and Italian Tradition – Medieval Chicken with Pomegranates
Emperor’s Fritters
Medieval Pizza – The Origin of Pizza
Roast Chicken with Salsa Camellina
Sweet Rice
Afrutum or Spumeum – 6th-century Byzantine recipe
A Medieval Breakfast – Wine, Carbonata, and Millet Bread
Salviata – Eggs and Sage
Tria di Vermicelli
Cabbage Soup
Frittelle Ubaldine – Pancakes with Flowers and Herbs
Saffron Cheesecake
Drunken Pork – Early Medieval Pork Stew
Medieval Monk’s Stuffed-Egg Soup
Apple Pie
Onion Soup
Gnocchi
Lentils and Mustard Greens
Chicken soup – Brodo Granato
Turnip Soup
Beans and Bacon – Black-Eyed Peas
Prawn Pie – Pastello de Gambari
Foxtail Millet Polenta and Spit-Roasted Goose
Beef Stew
Blancmange
Leek Soup
Quail Stew with Coconut
Chicken Pie
Ravioli
Almond Cream
Red Mullet Soup
Spit Roast Beef with Arugula Seeds
Walnut Bread
Lasagna
Tripe
Fried Fish
Roast Lamb with Green Sauce
Clams
Sweet and Sour Sardines
Trouts with Green Sauce
Lamb Stew
Quails with Sumac
Chicken with Fennel Flowers
Sea Bream

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