Tuscan Romagna: the produce of its woods
The territory of the Unione Montana which stretches towards Romagna is where both natural resources and social traditions have been preserved with greatest care.
Here the harshness of the mountains is mellowed by the presence of the towns of Marradi, Palazzuolo sul Senio and Firenzuola.
The huge boulders and peaks, although reaching only just above1000 metres above sea level, form a background and skyline which is more often than not, impressive. On the roads which go to Romagna from Tuscany through the mountain passes (Faentina, Bolognese, Imolese) the view is dominated by uncontaminated woods of beech, chestnut and oak and of huge meadows with the occasional clump of juniper bushes and boulders.
The people living here have for many centuries obtained their food from the natural resources of this land.
The farmers used special techniques when caring for their chestnuts groves and its produce. They spent much of their time in the activities of "smacchiatura" (removing dried branches), cleaning the earth under the trees, preparing the "parate" (mounds of leaves which would stop the chestnuts from rolling too far, the harvest of the crop and its drying. In the chestnut groves nothing was wasted: the few chestnuts remaining on the ground or discarded because worm-ridden, were eaten by the pigs.
The chestnuts of Marradi after many centuries of careful selection, have reached a homogenous quality, unique not only in Italy, but world-wide.
For many years the “Marrone del Mugello I.G.P.” (chestnuts) has been cultivated in Marradi and other parts of the Mugello. It is identified by law-code CEE 2081/92 as a fruit coming from a geographic protected area as a result of particular natural and human factors. It is cultivated without the use of any fertilizers.
“Il Marrone” (chestnut) of the Mugello which is sweet and refined can be a regular medium or large size and of a slightly flat elliptical shape while other chestnuts are all sorts of sizes and shapes.
“Il Marrone” cultivated in Marradi is no doubt one of the best to be produced in Italy, and possibly in all the world; as is demonstrated by the history of this delicious nut which has been exported from Marradi across the Channel and even to the East for centuries. The English have always appreciated and chosen the “chestnuts of Marradi” above others.
Recipes for specialities of Marradese cooking using both fresh and dried (white) chestnuts as the main ingredient of the dish have been passed down through the centuries.
Many dishes of the lower lying territories which made use of wheat or maize flour are made in Marradi with chestnut flour instead.
The typical "pattona" (a gruel made with chestnut flour) was prepared every 10-15 days and once solidified was eaten sliced, like bread either on its own, with milk, fresh sheep's cream cheese or junket, toasted or fried. For this reason the chestnut tree was known as the 'bread tree'.
This gastronomic tradition is revived every year in the autumn, in October during the SAGRA DELLE CASTAGNE (CHESTNUT FESTIVAL), where many gastronomic specialities featuring chestnuts may be tasted at the various stands: roasted chestnuts which are called 'bruciate' (burnt), chestnut cake and pudding, 'castagnaccio' (an oven baked flat sweet), fried tortellini (stuffed pasta), chestnut and goat cream cheese pie, chestnut log, doughnuts and fritters, chocolate chestnuts, candied chestnuts, 'avvampati' (scorchers) etc.
This is the recipe for Torta di marroni (CHESTNUT CAKE), which we consider the most typical as well as most requested sweet dish served at the chestnut festival and the best-loved by the families of Marradi.
During the Festival of Marradi cultivators of the area sell their carefully produced and gathered 'good chestnuts' and the visitor is able to get hold of the supplies he needs to prepare the delicious Tortellini fritti (FRIED PASTA WITH CHESTNUT FILLING) in his own kitchen.
For many centuries the inhabitants of these mountains have gathered fruit and nuts in the woods and wild salads and herbs in the fields: this produce of the earth had become an indispensible part of the staple diet of the countryfolk.
In Palazzuolo Sul Senio this custom has never been interrupted; produce growing wild in nature continues to play an important part in the local cuisine.
In fact on the four Sundays of October during the Sagra del Marrone e dei prodotti naturali at Palazzuolo (Festival of chestnuts and natural products), as well as the Bottega dei Portici (a food store), it is possible to taste and to buy grappa (brandy) made with Melissa, blackberries, raspberries, sloes, sage, juniper, rosemary, apples and mint; liquers made with rosemary, walnut, basil, bay leaves and mint jam, raspberry, blackberry and elderberry syrup; rose lip tea; acacia, wildflower and chestnut flower honey. Besides on one Sunday in October the “Sagra del Suino” (Pig Festival) is held.
Aromatic herbs flavour and enhance the flavours of he dishes of the Palazzuolean cuisine: in the recipe offered by the Locanda Senio, juniper berries are used to flavour the meat of the Porco medievale. This kind of pig is in extinction as well as the “Cinta Senese” a special kind of pig (bred in the woods of the ‘Le Panare’ farm) with a dark hide and a white stripe around its middle.
The mushroom is a particular product of this territory which has gained great gastronomic value over the last few decades; the 'porcino' (boletus edulis) can be found both in the age-old chestnut woods as well as under the extensive plantations of saplings and 'another jewel of the gourmet known as the 'prugnolo' (the blackthorn mushroom) sprouts in the green of the meadows, after the snow has melted and the sun has warmed' (Lorini "Il Mugello in Cucina" - Cooking in the Mugello).
There is even a 'SAGRA' (festival) dedicated to this mushroom in Firenzuola at the end of the month of May.
The woods and meadows of Firenzuola, home of the 'pietra serena' (grey stone) have once again become the ideal habitat for fallow and roe deer. A breeding ground for fallow-deer has been set up with the help of the Comunità Montana at Moscheta, in the area protected by the Forestry commission and next to the much visited ABBAZIA (abbey), and it goes without saying that this very particular meat can be eaten at the restaurant Badia di Moscheta; the dish most often served is Stewed fallow-deer