In recent years, there has been a big come back to genuine foods; be it honey, meat, flour, fruit or vegetables, people are moving towards a healthier way of eating, and tend to prefer organically produced goodies over their industrial counterparts. And if purchases can be made from local producers, not only are we reducing long-distance delivery impact on the environment, but we are often buying from people we know and trust, honest folk who take great pride in what they do, and guarantee high quality. Then there are those who simply do it themselves…..
In this month’s article, we want to tell the story of how a humble chestnut can be transformed into something special – flour. The complete reportage was graciously submitted to us by Antonella Camisa, who patiently captured each aspect of the procedure – and then took home her precious, well-earned flour!
Up until a short while ago, Mr Luigino De Paoli and his wife Orietta ran an agro-tourism establishment called “A Ca’ de Pipin” (“Pipin’s house” in dialect), situated in the tiny hamlet of Toceto, in the hills above Varese Ligure; roughly an hour’s drive away from Bedonia. The couple sadly shut down the place when they recently acquired and restructured a hotel in Tarsogno, given the impossibility of running both.
Whilst in activity, the couple would breed animals with organic methods hence producing fresh and cured meats. They kept beehives which supplied them with honey, and cultivated wheat and corn, from which they obtained flour, ground on the property with their own traditional stone mill. Although the agro-tourism is now closed, and the livestock has all been sold, Luigino sometimes puts the mill at disposal of friends in need of a good grinding (!), in the old-fashioned manner. Antonella and her husband Roberto, had requested Luigino to open the mill and get the works going for them; they had collected 150kg of chestnuts in their own woods at Tarsogno , and wished to transform them into organic flour.
They picked them, carried them home in baskets and buckets, washed them under running water to remove soil and dirt – only highly technological methods used here!!
Then began the dehydration process; the chestnuts, still in their shells, were placed on a grate hanging above an old kitchen range in the garage, with a non-stop fire underneath for a whole month! Mountain people back in the day often had a “graia”, a little hut which served this purpose, and was kept well away from the house because of the smoke and soot it produced!
Once dehydrated, the chestnuts were carefully selected, in order to eliminate any rotten fruit amongst them, and at this point, they weighed in at 35kg as opposed to the initial 150…..less than a third of the original weight! Step four of the process consisted in putting them though the thresher, a wooden contraption which separates the nuts from their shells, as well as removing all the inner skin. It was used by farmers back in the day to separate cereals from husks, but has been substituted nowadays by modern methods. However, our industrious couple wanted to do things the traditional way, from A to Z! The thresher, connected to the motor of a tractor, made light and rapid work of spitting out clean chestnuts, which then headed straight for the mill. Another four hours of grinding, and the flour was ready….
Suffice it to say that the whole cycle, from fresh fruit to flour, began at the beginning of October, and was completed two months later. A labour of love, to say the least! At home, they proceeded to weigh it up into bags for storage, one of which, we are ecstatic to say, came our way!
And in fact Antonella, who, as well as being an excellent photographer, is also a fantastic cook, has already begun to spin her magic in the kitchen! She has made a traditional dish called Peghai, or Pegaj (dialect has no correct or incorrect spelling!), and shared a photo of the end result with us – we immediately felt ravenous!
She makes some fresh pasta with flour, water, salt and a drop of oil, and rolls it out very thinly. Then she prepares a soft paste with chestnut flour, milk and water, spreads it over the pasta, and covers it with another layer of pasta, patting gently but firmly in order to seal the two layers. Then she cuts it all into small diamond shape pieces, which are then boiled in salted water, and served with a walnut sauce, ricotta cheese, or simply melted butter. Delicious!
Other typical dishes in the area are “Castagnaccio” a sort of pudding which may include rosemary, pine nuts, sultanas and ricotta cheese; tagliatelle, made with a percentage of chestnut flour mixed with the regular kind; “pad’letti”, or “frisseu”, little fried pancakes; gnocchi……..the list goes on and on.
Who’s for a bit of sampling then?!