My mother’s grandma Chiara was a storyteller. She was the equivalent of a today’s soap opera but without a tv screen. Chiara was a widow and lived in a small humble house at the very end of my village, at the foot of the hills. In those days, at the end of 1800, Stiava, where I live, was just a handful of houses, all scattered near the church, like in search of a holy protection. From the cemetery nestled on top of the hill, the view of the village down below was magical, especially at sunset when the first tiny lights would light up. That was the time people used to visit her, after a quick, frugal dinner. Carrying small lanterns and a stool, they would knock at her door and sit close to the fireplace during the Winter, or in the front yard under the big linden tree when the weather was more clement. There, she would start telling her weekly story, which was obviously long enough to force people to come back for more in the following days. Back in those days, there was very little to do in a village like mine. Men used to work in the fields, or like my grandpa, they were masons and carpenters. They all knew each other and there was no need to ride anywhere else. The greengrocer produce market was, and still is located in the small courtyard close to the church, and the grocery store was, and still is on the bridge that connects the two sides of the village. The two village butchers were right in the center of Stiava and life used to pass through their bottegas, just like all the most important political facts and gossip. The baker was, and still is at the main entrance of the village, after all, bread was the main resource for every family. Life was slower but surely richer in many ways.
Chiara was one of the many lavandaie (laundresses) who every day would be washing linens and clothes in the gora, the natural stream in the woods that crosses our village to finally flow in the sea. Some of the wealthy people from Viareggio would pay her for that. The clear cold water of the gora was the best way to give linens the original freshness and candid white. Chiara used to boil all the whites in a large cauldron where she would have dissolved natural soap and fireplace ashes. She would stir everything with a large wooden spoon. Then she would rinse everything in the cold waters of the gora. When my grandmother spoke about Chiara, she used to say that she looked frail, but with the energy of a bull. Stirring linens in that cauldron for her was just like making polenta on Friday! Polenta: served soft and creamy directly from the pot, with the leftover always grilled or fried the following day…all week-long polenta and bread, potatoes, soups. Frugal and filling dishes. The body shape was not a priority in those days. This was a long, long time ago when people were so poor money wise but so rich in every other way.
I love passing this story along.
Years later, my grandpa, one of Chiara’s sons, inherited this gift and he too became a storyteller. Though he also had a job and a better life than his poor mother. His stories were just magical, maybe even more so. Growing up, when I think of them, I regret those days where I believed everything that he would tell me. He would speak of the fictitious world full of dragons, sea monsters, ugly witches and goblins that would come into the village at night to scare all those kids who were not in bed by 8 o’clock. I wish that magical world was real. If I owe my passion for cooking to my grandma, I certainly owe my gifted world of storytelling and creative writing to him. I think I have it in my genes as I love telling stories just like him.
Tarts and pies have always been part of the meals at my grandmother’s. Like a ritual. My grandma used to make a killer custard which she would pour on top of cognac soaked savoiardi, literally drowning them. I am the keeper of this recipe, the custodian, so to speak. Fruit tarts and pies were her best creations, and each season had a new favorite ingredient. Let me share her chestnut pie with you. And while you eat it, go back to when you were a child! What was your favorite sweet when you were a kid?
Castagnaccio – Chestnut Pie
400 gr chestnut flour
1 pinch of sea salt
600 gr water at room temp
30 gr pine nuts
40 gr golden raisins, soaked in warm water for 10 minutes until reconstituted
40 gr of walnuts, coarsely chopped
1 tsp fresh rosemary needles
Grated orange zest, to your taste
A generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil (5 Tbs)
Fresh sheep’s milk ricotta
Preheat the oven to 375 F.
In a bowl and using a small whisk, combine chestnut flour, salt and water until a smooth and creamy batter has formed. Blend in the dried fruit, rosemary needles, 4 tbs of extra virgin, and orange zest. Combine well then rest for 10 minutes. Pour 2 Tbs of extra virgin in a 10 inch wide low sided round cake pan ( or a tart pan) and with a brush oil it perfectly.
Mix the batter and then pour it into the oiled cake pan, level it with a spoon or spatula, drizzle 1 Tbs of extra virgin on top and bake for approx. 30 minutes or until cracks have formed.
Serve it sliced and topped with a nice dollop of fresh ricotta.