A hunter-gatherer’s dream

Posted by on Nov 9, 2011 | 2 comments

I find it absolutely thrilling to forage for my own food. Maybe it stems from my Baltimore upbringing. In the summer months, we liked to go crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay and catch enough crustaceans for a true Maryland crab feast. We would steam the poor beasts, dump them on tables lined with yesterday’s newspapers,crack them open with wooden mallets, and eagerly pick the sweet, delicate crabmeat from the shells. The crabs were somehow more delicious when we did the crabbing and steaming ourselves.

When I arrived in Italy this fall, I had dreams of mushroom hunts. I envisioned finding my own porcini mushrooms, inviting friends over for dinner and serving them mushroom bruschetta and porcini mushroom risotto, faking humility as I casually mentioned that I found these mushrooms myself. It would be impressive. I let my imagination run wild – maybe I could even borrow someone’s dog and search for my own truffles, find the mother load of white truffles, and become a millionaire overnight.

To my dismay, I discovered that in order to forage for mushrooms, I needed to buy a mushroom license. Also, there were complicated rules and regulations surrounding where and how many mushrooms one could collect, probably for good reason. Disheartened, I settled on buying mushrooms at the farmer’s market.

When my boyfriend’s mother, Luisa, asked if I wanted to forage for chestnuts with her, the hunter-gatherer in me reawakened. “Do we need a license?!” I asked. She replied enthusiastically, “Nope! Just gloves and a few plastic bags.”

The only question now was, what would I do with them all?

We set off on our journey to Corniglio, a mountain town about sixty kilometers from Parma. It was late October, the air was cool but not unbearable, and the leaves were changing colors. As we drove, Luisa exclaimed, “I see them I see them! Pull over.” We hopped out of the car, and Luisa handed me a large wooden stick. I excitedly ran over to where she pointed, anticipating that the ground would be scattered with the shiny deep brown chestnuts I had seen at markets. To my surprise, I found little spiky things, most brown but some slightly green. They looked like tiny porcupines. Now I understood what the stick and the gloves were for. To get to the chestnuts, we would have to smash the bristly shells with wooden sticks and use the gloves to liberate the chestnuts from their protective cages – a fairly labor-intensive process.

Some kind of primal instinct took hold of me. Adrenaline coursed through my body and made my heart pump faster as I darted from one tree to another, shaking branches to make the chestnuts fall to the ground, smashing them left and right as I collected my dark brown, shiny prizes. We gathered chestnuts until our backs began to ache and we had enough to fuel an entire village through the winter.

Luisa advised me to check all the chestnuts for discoloration or cracks before putting them in my bag. Sometimes they are infected by worms or fungus and can spread the disease to healthy chestnuts if they are mixed together in the same bag.

The only question now was, what would I do with them all? Considering most of the American chestnuts were wiped out in the early 1900s by the pathogenic fungus cryphonectria parasitica, I, like most Americans, had never prepared fresh chestnuts.

Luisa explained that to roast chestnuts you must prick each one with a knife to assure that they don’t explode while cooking. She also said that she likes boiled chestnuts even more than roasted ones, because they retain their inherent sweetness instead of taking on a slightly burnt taste that can result from roasting. Also, by boiling chestnuts she can tell the good ones from the bad. The bad chestnuts float while the good ones sink to the bottom. Whether you boil or roast chestnuts, you must peel the tough outer layer to reach the sweet yellowish-white meat.

We decided to use our chestnuts for veal roast with hazelnut sauce, a recipe from the popular Italian cooking show I menu di Benedetta.  We boiled the chestnuts and burnt our fingers while peeling off the hot skins in preparation for our feast.

The recipe yielded out-of-this-world results. The roast was fork-tender and practically melted into the creamy, unctuous, nutty hazelnut sauce. We used the leftover sauce the next day atop homemade gnocchi for another perfect autumn meal.

2 Comments

  1. Would love a homemade Gnocchi recipe posted on the site!

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