Saturday, November 11, 2006

Le Caldarroste – Chestnuts roasting on an Open Fire

Humming joyfully in Milan’s nippy morning air, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire, Jack Frost nipping at my nose…”

Oops, wrong country.

Have you ever had roasted chestnuts? I had my first open fire roasted chestnuts on the streets of Milan on Saturday morning. I know, it is embarrassing. I, like most Americans grew up singing about roasted chestnuts at Christmas time. I was even born in the north and most of my youth was spent in cities that could be considered north but to my defense, I come from a Southern family. My family is so southern that when my grandmother was 7 months pregnant with my father and was living in New York, she left her husband, moved back down to South Carolina to stay with her relatives because there was no way she was going to have a “Yankee” in her family.

My oldest daughter was about nine months old. We were strolling piazza Duomo, enjoying the Christmas lights and Nativity Scenes, and it was cold. Even though I had several sweaters underneath my overcoat and wool scarf the chill made my bones creak. In the corner of the piazza, next the Duomo and across the street from the Rinanscente was an old man with a cart. His face was weathered and his hands rough but I could tell he was warmer than I was because his jacket was open and his scarf laid to one side on his shoulder. I noticed a wood burning fire in the lower portion of the cart with flames lapping up and around the sides of a rotating, round, iron plate.

He called into the morning air, “CALDAAAAAARROSTE!” and spun the disk causing these little nuggets on the plate to shift and resettle.

The air filled with a sweet perfume and again a call, “Marroni Caldi!” and again a pull on the plate, the fire crackled a bit and there was that perfume. It was sweet like baked nuts and honey.

My mouth was watering even though I had no clue as to what he was roasting and the cold in my back pushed toward the street vendor. As I came closer and could see the contents of the plate it was clear they were some type of nuts. The shell was burned black and had been split on one side. The meat of the nut exposed to the plate looked crisp and slightly burned. I had learned over the past few years that my culinary preparation was lacking and that it was generally a good idea to try just about anything sold by the street vendors. I was further encouraged as I saw the little kids pulling on their parents coats begging for the Caldarroste.

The handwritten sign above the cart indicated “five mil” (five thousand lira) for a bag of these roasted nuts. Although I was poor I could afford “five mil”, so I made my purchase. Perhaps he realized my inexperience and pushed about 10 napkins into my bag before I stepped aside. I reached into the bag and grasped one of the caldarroste. Quickly my hand retreated; they were hot, oh so hot, as if they had been roasted over an open fire!?!

Now prepared for the burning sensation, I learn quickly, gingerly I broke open one of the nuts to reveal a soft, steaming hot meat. I broke half of the nut off with my teeth, yes still hot, and my mouth was filled with a honey sweet taste. The slightly charred part of the nut was a bit hard creating a contrast of soft and crunchy. It was very satisfying. Needless to say, the bag of roasted nuts did not last long. As I was about throw away the bag, I thought, but the napkins? A quick look at my hands revealed the answer. They were coal black. Roasted chestnuts create a tremendous amount of soot. Perhaps, this is also the reason of the permeating perfume they release while cooking. The ten napkins were barely enough to clean my hands.

Upon my return home, I pulled out my Italian/English dictionary and found Caldarroste. Chestnuts, I thought, where do I know chestnuts from? It was several days later that I associated chestnuts to the Christmas carols I had sung since a small child. Again, chestnuts are not just Italian, but with something so good, how is it possible that I had never had them before. To this day I cannot answer that last question but next time in Italy over the Christmas holidays, buy some CALDAAAARROSTE and you may decide that this is one lost Christmas tradition well worth a rebirth.


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Blogger ChickyBabe said...

You make me long for those chestnuts! I was most disappointed when I was in Paris in September and it was too early for chestnut season. "Marrons chauds" they call out everywhere... I enjoy them here in Australia at home, with a glass of red wine!

8:38 PM

Blogger RennyBA said...

You know I love outdoors activities and this post was so very readable and with lovely pictures - thanks for sharing! I've never thought of roasted chestnuts for Christmas but it surely started my anticipation for the season!

Btw: Thanks for your birthday greetings - hope you'll join me in my first year blog anniversary too:-)

3:46 AM

Blogger Tracie B. said...

i had a xmas-song-about-chestnuts moment last saturday too. gennaro came to ischia with a grill, gamberoni, and a sack full of chestnuts. after the meal, he put them on the fire...they created such a festive smell that i almost forgave the weather for being so cold. we had our little bbq outside of our friends enoteca, with the sounds of neapolitan folk music coming from the inside. all of this was accented with a black,juicy, hearty montepulciano d'abruzzo (zacagninni, san clemente 2001) that warmed our bones and complemented the castagne perfectly with its fruit and spices. i wanted to write about it but i didn't have my camera. next time...

una bella serata :)

4:20 AM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

ChickyBabe Yesterday while writing I was thinking about my kids and how we would go on the Castagnate in the early fall. It was always fun although quite wet and muddy. Then roasting them in the fireplace for next couple of weeks was always a blast.

Renny The Chestnuts are part of a Christmas song in the US. While I have met few here who know about how good roasted chestnuts are everyone intuitively associates them with Christmas. Congrats on you Blogversery.

Tracie b. Think about how difficult it would be to do the same thing here in TX. Not that we do not bbq, but the spontaneity just isn't there. We would rather take a walk through the mall... Great Choice on the wine. I always combined with a Barbera.

7:26 AM

Blogger Expat Traveler said...

I love marroni!!! That was my most favorite food in winter time in Switzerland. We see them here for sale but really, it's not the same for me... We've also collected a few that have fallen from the ground but I really wonder if those would actually taste good..

Any idea how long they lost? I'm guessing they are much like fruit and rot pretty fast.

9:22 AM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Expat I am not sure how they taste here. In Italy it is one of those pleasures you look forward to all year long.

I cannot remember us ever having them go bad because after the Castagnata we keep some to roast for a couple of weeks, others would go into jam, some would end up under sugar (maron glace') and the remainder would be set out to dry so we could use them into the early spring. They must be cleaned as soon as possible but other than that they always were consumed.

9:42 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

David, I love your stories! This one reminded me of my father roasting chestnuts on an open fire when I was a child! Guess it must be nearly chestnut roasting time in the streets again. They sell roasted chestnuts in the street during december here too. I usually take a day off work to visit the christmas market in the town, drink mulled wine and eat roasted chestnuts from the stalls. And Yes! I take it all for granted as being what everybody does everywhere


4:34 AM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Dianne You just expressed the concept of my blog. Good Food, Wine and Family & Friends. What else is really important in life?

You remember the time with your father and chestnuts, your mind has decided that this is an important memory, do you remember the 10th paycheck you received? How about some project you were working on in your second year on the job...

If we understand what is important long term we may make different decisions today. I truly regret that I was working all the time when my kids were small.

6:53 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


You have just explained the escence of life which in your own way ... is the escence of your blog!

Your memories and your passion for those memories


12:14 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are many street vendors in Melbourne selling roasted chestnuts, too. Love the smell.

5:33 AM

Blogger Travel Italy said...

Dos Centavos I know just what you are talking about. I can smell them now, the wood burning and the sweet perfume that rises. Goodness I need to go to Milan.

5:38 AM


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