Photo essay: Chestnut polenta in the Tuscan mountains

One late October, my friend Simona, who runs a beautiful B&B called Canto del Maggio, brought us to her special place, a little wooden ‘rifugio‘, as they’re known in Italian, a mountain cabin offering a place of rest and nourishment for hikers. This particular rifugio, called Osteria la Rocca, clings to the tiny stone hamlet of Rocca Ricciarda, high up in the chestnut woods of Pratomagno, between Florence and Arezzo. The cosy, little trattoria with its fireplace serves the Tuscan typical fare from this area and is open only on Sundays.

We walk in to find 92 year old Mario hunched over the fireplace, steadily and patiently shaking and turning chestnuts in a perforated cast iron pan. He let us into the kitchen to show us how he makes chestnut polenta — this is the real reason why Simona has brought me here, to show me this incredible, dying tradition — by vigorously stirring chestnut flour (which is nothing more than dehydrated chestnuts that have been ground into a very fine, aromatic flour) and boiling water in an ancient copper pot with a wooden pole (an awkward, muscle building exercise that no one does anymore because it is so strenuous), before being turned out onto a perfectly white linen cloth.

It looks like a dark, round loaf of bread but it is incredibly light and pillowy. Mario cuts slices of the still warm, steaming polenta with sewing thread (can you spot it?) and serves the warm slices with fresh ricotta. I’m in heaven. There is also gnocchi — Pratomagno potatoes are held in high esteem and are recognised as a Slow Food presidium, these red-skinned, oval potatoes are grown in altitudes over 500 meters, some say they were derived from King Edward potatoes — and schiacciata all’uva and divine, ricotta-stuffed, fried chestnut flour fritters. Mario goes back to roasting chestnuts on the fireplace, patiently turning and tossing them throughout lunch, and recounting to us how, growing up, they were all he had to relieve his hunger, chestnuts and potatoes.

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Comments

  1. val says:

    This is what travel to Italy is all about, a lovely diversion for today!

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