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08 November 2012

Castagnaccio and The Town of Tagliacozzo in Abruzzo

It was only a couple of years ago when I discovered this chestnut cake in Tuscany.  I was in front of a really long buffet table of traditional Tuscan food in San Giovanni d'Asso when this cake caught my attention.   I looked at the alarmingly growing mountain of food on my plate and I have not even reached the middle of the buffet table yet.  I was doing everything wrong.   I was the epitome of a person not knowing her manners.  I knew I should have just given up my post and picked up where I left off after I empty my plate.   Isn't that what basic buffet table etiquette says?  BUT.  Being confronted with the "task" of exploring the plethora of Tuscan food, I was excused, wasn't I? 

Etiquette got the better of me.  I decided to empty my plate first and go for the second round.  So I assumed my husband and our friends' post in keeping our table while staying with the kids.  Instead, my husband took a couple of slices for me before I could even go back.  He knew that I should enjoy it before I become full.  That's when I discovered what a castagnaccio tastes like. 

Not everyone was really fond of it because of its peculiar taste.  My husband and another friend included.  It is made of chestnut flour, extra virgin olive oil, rosemary (in Liguria, they put fennel seeds), pine nuts and raisins.   It's not sweet because it doesn't have sugar and it's compact and flat because it doesn't have any rising agent.  I remember eating non-stop leaving my fingers oily.  I myself couldn't decide if I liked it or not at the beginning but after finishing both slices and then more, it just meant that I liked it more than I was understanding. 

Castagnaccio (chestnut cake) originated in Tuscany and is also prepared in other northern regions of the country.  It is baked in autumn, when the chestnuts are gathered from the ground.  Originally a poor man's food which requires only  inexpensive and available ingredients, it then evolved to something more elaborate with raisins, pine nuts and dried candied fruits that some recipes use.  

According to the "Commentario delle più notabili et mostruose cose d'Italia e di altri luoghi" by Ortensio Landi (1553), the inventor of castagnaccio is Pilade da Lucca.   This was the first written evidence about the cake which was then referred to as castagnazzo

It is best enjoyed with ricotta, vin santo or miele di castagno (chestnut honey).  I tried it with chestnut honey.  It gave the sweetness the cake lacked.  And enjoying a good dessert with vin santo is without a doubt, one of the pleasures of Tuscan eating.

One warm and sunny autumn day, we decided to go for a drive to Tagliacozzo in the Abruzzo region of Italy.  It was about a 100-kilometer drive going towards the Simbruini mountains.  It was a pleasant trip, going through the countryside between the regions of Lazio (where Rome is) and Abruzzo.   Trees abound both sides of the road. 

A few kilometers before arriving to the town, a vast number of cars were parked on both sides of the road with no building structure in the vicinity.    We found it so strange to see so much activity in the middle of nature.  Until we noticed what everyone had in their hands.  Baskets and plastic bags.  At first we thought they were gathering mushrooms.  Then we finally noticed the tall trees.  Chestnuts!  They were picking chestnuts from the ground!

We joined the bandwagon and armed ourselves with plastic bags too.  Inside the woods, there were families with small kids, old people, dogs and I guess the whole town.  It was a first for me and the kids to pick chestnuts and the experience gave us a chance to enjoy doing something as a family.  We went back to the car with two full plastic bags of chestnuts and two very happy kids. 

Part of our trip to Tagliacozzo was to have some good meat which the town and the surrounding areas are known for.    It was the best place to renew my dormant interest in eating carpaccio.  I have not tried eating these very thinly sliced raw meat for more than a decade. 

Tagliacozzo means "cut in the rock" indicating the fissure that divides the mountain where the town stands.  It is a beautiful town with a vibrant town square during the old times.  The elegant and important buildings at the Piazza Obelisco (Obelisk Square) give evidence to the importance to this town in Abruzzo during the old times.

The important monuments and churches of Tagliacozzo are worth seeing.  There is the Palazzo Ducale which was constructed on the 14th century by the Orsini Family then passed on to the Colonna Family. 

The oldest church of the town is the Church of Sts. Cosma and Damiano which goes back from the 8th century which belonged to the Benedictine monks of Montecassini.  It had suffered thefts and plunder throughout the centuries.

The other important church of the town is the Church & Convent of St. Francis.  It was formerly the Santa Maria Extra Moenia (Church of Santa Maria Outside the Walls) because it stood outside the first wall in the 12th century.  At the 13th century, it was radically renovated and dedicated to St. Francis and kept its name until now.  In one of the entrances is the magnificent fresco of the family tree of the Franciscan monks. 

Aside from these important historical monuments and churches of the town, there are the alleys and other residential buildings speaking of history and culture.  A walk around this town of Abruzzo is like walking back in time.  Tagliacozzo is among the Borghi Piu' Belli d'Italia (Most Beautiful Hamlets of Italy)

Have a good weekend everyone!



Adapted from Il Cucchiaino d'Argento Volume 2 da 6 - 10 Anni

Serves 8 in a 24 cm. round baking pan
  • 300 g. chestnut flour
  • 50 g. pine nuts
  • 30 g. raisins
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 rosemary sprig
  • a pinch of salt
  • 450 ml. cold water
  1. Soak raisins in lukewarm water for 10 minutes in a bowl, drain and pat dry with paper towels.  Set aside.
  2. In a bowl, put sifted chestnut flour.  Gradually pour the water in the bowl while whisking to avoid having lumps. 
  3. Add extra virgin olive oil, salt and raisins.  Mix well.
  4. Pour batter in a 24 cm. pan with low sides that is covered with parchment paper.  
  5. Sprinkle pine nuts & some rosemary needles on top.  
  6. Bake in a pre-heated oven at 200 degrees Celcius for 30 minutes.
  7. Serve tepid or cold.  Best enjoyed with ricotta. 
Note:  If you cut the castagnaccio to slices, you can keep it for 2 - 3 days in the fridge or 1 month in the freezer