In the autumn of 2011, I noticed bags of a yellow-ish powder on a stall in the farmers’ market in the Ex-Mattatoio in Testaccio, Rome. It was farina di castagna – chestnut flour. That is, flour made from the dried and milled nuts of Castanea sativa, the sweet chestnut tree.
At the time, I experimented with it. A friend commented that there is in fact a traditional Italian bread made with chestnut flour, called pane di San Martino, or St Martin’s bread. The feast day of St Martin is 11 November, just around the time the year’s chestnut flour becomes available.
Anyway, I mentioned this bread to a teacher who I was doing a (food-focussed) conversation class with. She dug out a recipe. Well, she clearly Googled a recipe, as a quick Google myself soon found her source, which is here (in Italian).
After having gone through all that, I then completely failed to try the recipe. A year went by, autumn returned – and so too did the chestnuts, and chestnut flour. So last week I bought a new pack, and determined to revisit the pane di San Martino recipe.
Firstly, however, I had to translate it.
It talked in vague terms: “Prendere mezzo mestolo di farina di castagne e mezzo mestolo di farina di frumento…”, that is “Take half a ladle of chestnut flour and half a ladle of wheat flour…” But which ladle? I’m not a fan of the cup measure in recipes – especially as a US and an Australian cup, say, are different sizes. But what about an Italian ladle? I had two in my kitchen, one medium-small, one medium-large. Was either suitable? I plumped for using the medium-large one, and weighing the flours in grams. (If you’re interesting in scaling up recipes, using grams and kilos makes things a lot easier, in part as the maths are more manageable when you’re working with percentages and a measures based around factors of ten. Ounces smounces.)
Anyway, I translated and converted the recipe, but it still wasn’t quite right in terms of the liquid/dry quantities, so I also revised it while making the dough. Indeed, all flours have different absorbency, so you will have to have a feel for dough when you’re adding mixing the water and flours. This time, I used an organic, stoneground farro bianco – white spelt – flour from the renowned Marino Mulino. If you use a wholewheat flour it will require a more water than a white flour.
So. Pane di San Martino. My teacher gave me some notes that said this bread is found from Emilia-Romagna in north Italy to Salento, in Puglia, the heel. I’ve never seen it in Rome though. In fact, I’ll come clean and say I’ve never seen it anywhere, in the crumby flesh. So although my version is based on an Italian recipe, my version has no claim to authenticity. Which might upset an Italian baker, but shouldn’t be a problem if you stumble upon this recipe from other climes.
The recipe uses both a leaven (sourdough culture) and fresh yeast. This is a technique used by one of my favourite bakers, Dan Lepard, though it might upset some purists. OK, purists, that’s two warnings now.
Make a sponge with:
50g chestnut flour
50g of wheat or spelt flour
12g fresh yeast
50g wheat or spelt leaven/sourdough culture (100% hydration – that is, made with 50% water, 50% flour)
180g tepid water
Cover and leave to ferment for around two hours.
Make a dough with:
350g wheat or spelt flour
250g chestnut flour
300g water. Add more if the dough feels too tight.
20g olive oil
Combine with a spoon or spatula. You want a moist dough. Don’t be afraid to add more water. When it’s a good consistency, knead to combine.
Cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
180g walnuts and knead gently to combine.
Cover and leave to rest for 10 minutes.
As the original recipe didn’t involve first and second proving periods, nor does this version. (I think I may work on this recipe though, and adjust the proving. Watch this space.)
Weigh the dough and divide in two. Form two balls, then leave these to prove in baskets or bowls lined with flour clothes.
Leave to rest for around two hours in a warm place away from draughts. Timing will vary depending on the temperature of where your prove the dough.
Preheat the oven to 220C.
Line a baking sheet with parchment. (I’m not using a stone at the moment, just a fierce domestic gas oven.)
When the dough feels springy and alive, almost jelly-like, you’re ready to bake.
Gently upturn the proving baskets/bowls onto the baking sheet.
Make cuts in the top – you can make slashes how you feel, as long as you use a sharp blade and don’t drag at the dough. (Slashes in a loaf used to be the owner’s signature when people used communal village bread ovens.)
Bake for 20 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 200C and bake for a further 20 minutes.
You want the loaf to have a nice colour, and sound hollow when you knock on the bottom. (This isn’t an exact science either but if it sounds hollow, that’s some indication the dough isn’t still soggy and doughy inside, instead it’s baked and dry.)
Leave to cool on a wire rack.
The resulting bread is sweet, almost cake-like, and pleasant for breakfast or afternoon tea, and makes good toast when it’s aged past its initial softness.
The great travel writer Eric Newby had a strong connection to Italy – he hid in the Italian mountains during WWII, as described in his wonderful Love and War in the Apennines, and he and his wife – who he met during the war – returned there many times, eventually buying a house in the mountains in 1967. It was called I Castagni, “The Chestnuts”; on the theme of said foodstuff, in A Small Place in Italy he writes “This room extended the whole height of the building and had originally been constructed for the purpose of drying chestnuts. They were laid out and dried over a fire that had a chimney which extended up to the height of the roof. When they were dry they were ground up into a pale, brownish flour and used to make a rather sickly, sweetish sort of bread called castagnaccia which, until long after the last war, was a staple food in many parts of mountain Italy.”
Later on, he writes more about the importance of chestnut trees for “the principle necessities of life”, from building materials to food, specifically castagnaccia, “what had been a stabple food that most old contadini [peasants] now wanted to forget they had ever eaten, because of the memories it brought back of long years of poverty.” Interestingly, the suffix -accio / -accia often indicates a perjorative, so castagnaccia could be translated – very loosely – as “yucky chestnut bread”.