They’re here. Falling from the trees Spilling from boxes at the fruit and veg vendor. Bursting from their spiny skins. Bulging in the rough, burlap sacks that the street vendors buy in bulk. Each one a miniature work of art, a talisman. A sign of good luck, to put (and inevitably forget) in one’s pocket. Chestnuts—everywhere—chestnuts!
Though there are many recipes using chestnuts (castagne), the best way to enjoy them, if you are one who loves them, is undoubtedly roasted over a fire. Hence the regional nickname, caldarroste. Hot. Roasted.
[Speaking of “hot” and “roasted,” a quick story: One evening, shortly after moving to Milan, I was home alone, and our apartment began to fill with a sharp, burning smell. I checked the wires, light fixtures and kitchen appliances. The fire—for surely there was a fire—was not in our unit. I threw open windows to see if perhaps the smoky odor was seeping in from the outside. No, it was inside. Obviously someone had started a fire in their kitchen, so I ran downstairs to alert the doorman. I banged on his door, my heart racing (I wasn’t sure how to say any of this in Italian). He opened in his old man’s, tank-style undershirt, and looked at me with a mixture of concern and amusement. I waved my arms around doing my best imitation of a raging blaze, and pointing at my nose to communicate “Smells like fire.” He laughed, repeated the word “castagne” five or six times loudly to my language-deaf ears, and pointed to his own kitchen from which a healthy smoke was emerging. He and his wife were roasting chestnuts.]
If you’re not equipped to do this at home, on the street is the way to go. 1. Find a vendor. You’re looking for a small truck, a 4- or 3-wheeled job, parked outside a school at day’s end, or along crowded piazze and outdoor walking malls.
2. Breathe deep. The odor is peculiarly pleasing: a nutty, singe-y, steamy smell (once you’ve learned to distinguish it from the common burning house). 3. Choose which size serving you’d like. Most vendors have three little tin cups, ranging from small to large, each marked with the associated price. He’ll measure out your chestnuts in the size of your choice, then deliver them to you in an ingenious white, paper tube, folded in the middle so that it holds the caldarroste on one side, and your discarded shells, as they accumulate, in the other.
And last, but not least, be thankful that Autumn has returned, and with it, those warm comforts that sustain us even as colder winds are blowing into town.