"For common folk, and for those unafraid of wind, it is a cheap, healthy and nutritious food"
-Pellegrino Artusi on chestnut flour
It's not hard to find someone who is avoiding gluten for health reasons these days. I, personally, haven't found any benefits from avoiding gluten, but want to be able to bake for my friends and family who don't eat it. This doesn't come without its challenges, however. As anyone who has tried to bake without using gluten knows, it can be quite difficult to replicate the effects of wheat flour. I remember the first Thanksgiving I spent with my father after he stopped eating gluten. Following my favourite stuffing recipe, I picked up a pricey loaf of rice-flour bread from the supermarket and unwrapped it so that the bread would go stale before I covered it in butter and turkey drippings. There was no need - the hard rice bread turned into a crumbly mess between my fingers. Perhaps, however, I should have tried to find an Italian gluten-free bread.
I was eager to try a naturally gluten-free recipe from Artusi's book because of what I've read about the treatment of celiacs and other gluten-intolerant people in Italy today. While Italy is known worldwide for its delicious pasta dishes and breads, the country is also gaining a reputation for being one of the best places to source high-quality gluten-free products, as the incidence of celiac continues to rise in the country. After all, many of the most wonderful foods Italy has to offer -- milky mozzarella, smooth gelato, and flavourful tomatoes, not to mention Arborio rice and polenta -- are naturally gluten-free. As in some other European countries, Italians with a diagnosis of celiac disease have an allowance from the government to source gluten-free foods from pharmacies.
I chose to make a chestnut cake, called castagnaccio, in order to experiment with a flour I hadn't used before and to get a dessert which would be appropriate for the approaching chill -- and chestnut harvests -- of fall. I had high hopes for this castagnaccio -- how wonderful it would be, I thought, to find a naturally gluten-free recipe from Italy's past, something that might reflect the present population's needs for gluten-free desserts.
This dessert, however, was a bit of a disappointment. 500 grams of chestnut flour - available for $6.99 at the local Italian supermarket, for those of you keeping track at home - were mixed with water to make a light, almost fluffy, batter. I greased a pan with olive oil, mixed currants into the batter, and poured it all into the cake pan, topping with more olive oil. I couldn't follow Artusi's suggestion of taking the cake to my local baker, so decided to bake it at an average bread-baking temperature (although the oven I used was a small electric model rather than a large wood-burning baker's oven). I baked the cake at 400 degrees for around forty minutes. Another change I made was that I didn't have pine nuts handy (having spent a great deal of money on rancid pignoli at a specialty nut purveyor when I made polpette, I wasn't eager to make that mistake again). I don't think a handful of nuts would have helped the cake, however, as it was solid, with a tough crust and a pudding-like center. The cake was bitter and sad -- I couldn't finish my piece. I decided on a somewhat Italian (but not quite historically authentic) breakfast of leftover pizza, instead.
So why did Artusi rave about this cake? Writing more than fifty years before the cause of celiac disease was discovered, he certainly wasn't trying to get Italians to eschew wheat flour. He was, however, trying to spread recipes from various regions of Italy throughout the country. He tells the story of trying to sell the idea of this cake outside of Tuscany, where most Italian chestnuts are sourced:
"I questioned a street vendor in Romagna on the subject. I described this chestnut cake to her, and asked why she did not try to earn a few pennies selling it. "What can I tell you?" she replied, "It's too sweet; nobody would eat it." "But those "cottarone" you are selling, aren't they sweet? Still, they are selling", I said. "Why don't you at least try the chestnut cake," I added."At first, distribute them free to the children, give them a piece as a gift to see if they start liking the taste. And then the grown-ups are very likely to come after the children." It was no use; I might as well have been talking to a stone wall". (Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well, p. 191)
"Cottarone", as Artusi goes on to explain, are stewed overripe fruits such as apples or pears. I would much rather eat cottarone than try more of this cake; the vendor Artusi spoke to knew her audience well. If, however, you have advice on how to improve this chestnut cake, I'd love to hear it!